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Posted: 5/25/2018 1:01:56 AM EDT
[Last Edit: sharkman6]
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

Cassandra\Claw

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.




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 cunt up on the mountain will leave us alone.  We’ve got a hostage and she can sit up there and fuck herself.  And once we have our golem, we are going up that mountain and then we’re going to fuck 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 fucking 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.


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

Lions

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


Lefranc


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?  Shit.  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.”

“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.”


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, ‘shit.’

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 fuck’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, shit," 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.


“Shit,” 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.


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.”


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 shit.”

“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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Chapter 8 Part II

Colt

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 fucking 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 fuck,” 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 fuck 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 dick 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.”

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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

Claw

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 shit.  And by shit, I mean a literal pile of human shit because we don’t have anything that passes for sanitation around here and people just squat down and shit and piss 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 shitting themselves to death.  And when they do die, they stay where they lay, just like the shit.  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 shit and piss.  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 motherfuckers.  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.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Chapter 10

Now the time is here
For Iron Man to spread fear
Vengeance from the grave
Kills the people he once saved
Black Sabbath, Iron Man

Lions
Like his counterpart to the south, Lions had to wade deep into the bureaucratic swamps to get things done.  In the civilized and sophisticated halls of New Sparta’s capital, he would not have to deal with any melee’s, murders or executions today.  But he would have to deal with his own share of intrigues, plotters, and schemers.  The maneuvering in the Emerald City was not as openly cutthroat as it was in Gomorrah’s refugee camp, at least not yet.

There were two meetings on this day’s schedule.  Both were integral in bringing everybody in line with Chief Marshal Gorman’s agenda.  The first was with the General Greylick, the Director of Science and Technology.  The second meeting was with the commander of the regiment which guarded the capital, Colonel Needles.  Lions had always found General Greylick a competent man.  He was a technocrat rather than a combat leader.  Still, Greylick was skilled at all the aspects of his job, chief amongst them the management of the Morning Star constellations.  And he was loyal.  It could also be said that Colonel Needles was loyal.  As for Colonel Needle’s competency, that was another matter entirely.


General Greylick’s office was in the southern end of the capital, in what was once a museum for a big aerospace conglomerate.  The office was large and tasteful but not ostentatious.  General Greylick met Colonel Lions at the office door and ushered him inside.  Greylick might have outranked Lions, but he was no dummy.  Needles was the Chief Marshal’s hatchet-man and fixer.  Only a fool would think of Lions as a mere colonel.

“Can I offer you some tea?” General Greylick offered.

“No thank you.  I don’t suppose you have any coffee, general,” Lions asked hopefully.  Greylick frowned.  Wrinkles formed across his meaty, bald head

“Nobody has any coffee, at least not any of the real stuff.  As per the recall, the Youngblood is steaming for port with a cargo hold full of the stuff, but until she arrives, it’ll be nothing but roasted acorns and dandelion roots.”
“I’ll pass then, general.  If I may get right to the point, we need to get the Morning Stars active again.  The decision to take those off-line after The Colonel’s rouge act was premature.  Now we find ourselves without…”

General Greylick held up a hand, palm out.  It was a signal for Lions to be silent.

"Before we discuss the Morning Stars, I need to show you something," General Greylick began.  "It has to do with that sample of computer code."

Greylick’s other hand produced a manila folder and passed it to Lions.  Lions couldn’t help but notice both of Greylick’s hands were flabby.  Greylick looked more like the proprietor of a pre-protest comic book shop than a Spartan general.  Even so, Greylick's mind was sharp, and he knew technology thoroughly.

“I have some new insights on this segment of code.  Given the sensitivity of these issues, as well as the fact that The Colonel’s co-conspirators may be about, I didn’t mention this when we scheduled this meeting.  I wanted to brief you on these personally, and alone.”

Lions thought about that.  Greylick did not suggest that The Colonel ‘might’ have had co-conspirators.  That was now assumed as fact.  Now it was a question of who were these co-conspirators?  Where were they?  What schemes were they up to?  Who was politically unreliable?

Lions opened the folder.  Greylick continued.

“I ran that sample of code through an analysis program.  This program breaks down different coding language and creates a graphic representation of that language.  Those first three sheets in your folder are the graphic depictions of three types of legacy coding language in common use before the Protest.”

Lions laid out the first three sheets of paper.  Each one was like a Rorschach test.  Each sheet contained unique arrangements of abstract shapes, but each had commonalities with the other two.  Each was made up of harsh, angry tones of red.  Each had a linear orientation to it.  The graphics seemed to move from left to right, from the top of the page to the bottom.  As the red tones made their way down the page, they turned at hard angles, mostly ninety degrees.  Greylick went on.

"I'm sure you can see the commonalities.  The harsh colors, the sharp corners, the linear aspect to the graphic.  These all depict coding language developed by human beings. The next depiction is from a sample of code we recently developed using a combination of human and machine learning."

Lions looked at the next sheet in the folder.  The hues on the paper were softer colors of violet.  The image still moved linearly down the page, but the corners were rounded, softer. Some of the abstract images curled back on themselves, or swirled, interrupting the forward progress ‘theme’ of the depiction.

“So human beings get you red and hard angles, and the automation gets you a softer purple and rounded corners,” Lions summarized, looking up at Greylick.  Greylick nodded agreement.

“Now look at the last graphic.”

The image was just a colorful blur on a sheet of paper, but Lions was shocked just the same.  Instead of reds or purples, a series of cool blues tones greeted Lions; cornflower, bird’s egg, sky blue.  Intermixed in the blues were shades of grey nearly pale enough to be white.  Instead of moving linearly, the images swirled around and into itself, like a whirlpool.  The soft, cool, swirling image would be calming, mesmerizing if not from its implications.

“Are you suggesting,” Lions began.  “Are you suggesting this code was created by some type of artificial intelligence?”

"AI," Greylick answered.  "I wouldn't just suggest it, I'd bet my stars on it.  That computer code you have there was not written by a human being."

Lions returned all the graphics to the folder, thought of keeping it for a moment, then handed it back to Greylick.  He subconsciously wanted to be rid of the thing as quickly as possible.
“Who has AI capabilities to do this?”

“Nobody,” Greylick answered.  “We’ve come the farthest, and that violet depiction is as far as we’ve gotten.  Kowloon is about a decade behind us.  The Raj is at least a decade behind them, and the Caliphate doesn’t even come close.”

"What about Gomorrah," Lions asked.  Greylick leaned back and heaved out a sigh as if the weight of what he was about to say was a burden upon him.

“We don’t know of Gomorrah having anything coming anywhere close to this, and everything we’ve extracted from Gomorrah would suggest they don’t.  But, we do know that Doctor Chosen was experimenting in various fields of science for a long time.  We know he had secret labs all over Gomorrah.  We don’t know how far he got in any single field or on any particular project.  Which means…”

“Sir, how do you know about that,” Lions interrupted.

“Colonel, I’ve been behind this desk for a long time.  I know Doctor Chosen went full-on mad scientist.  I also know he’s got secret labs all over North America.  I even know about the map the Chief Marshal has in his office.  I don’t know he got the map, and I don’t need to know, nor do I want to know.  If you are worried about me talking about that subject, don’t.”

Placated, Lions nodded.  Greylick continued.

"We don't know how far Doctor Chosen got in any particular field of study.  He could have developed AI, but I doubt it.  The sophistication of this also implies to me, a working element of quantum computing.  Now, can I say with absolute certainty that this was not developed in Gomorrah?  No, I cannot.  But my gut tells me it wasn't.  I've got over three decades of experience dealing with military technology and my gut tells me this computer code you intercepted was developed by a third party."

Lions shifted uncomfortably in his chair.  He had enough going on with the collapse of Gomorrah, uncooperative elements within New Sparta, uncovering the research Doctor Chosen did complete and tracking down The Colonel’s son.  The last thing he needed was some new player on the board, changing the dynamic of the game entirely.

Lions asked, “Any idea who?”

“No,” Greylick answered.  “That’s a question for somebody in the field, not some jumped up computer geek like me.”

Lions took a few moments to let the bad news sink in.  “Okay,” he said.  “So, we may have some unbeknownst third party armed with artificial intelligence and a quantum computer.  We’ll work it.

“In the meantime, we’re blind as to what is going on down south in the aftermath of The Colonel’s… Lions searched for the correct phrase.  Was it, ‘The Colonel’s act of terrorism?’ Was it, ‘assassination?’  Was it, ‘rogue act?’  Lions kept it simple.  "… Since The Colonel detonated the bomb, we have no idea what's happening down south.  Taking the Morning Star fleet offline was a premature decision.  We need to get our collection platforms back to work."

“The entire congress voted unanimously to take them offline.”

"Don't worry about Congress," Lions said.  He almost added, ‘the Chief Marshal isn't.'  "How soon can we get them back online?"

Greylick frowned.  It was the frown of a man who was about to pass bad news.  "It will take some time to do that.  Moving the Morning Stars isn't as simple as moving that little silver top hat around the Monopoly board.  When the order came down to take them off-line, they were all parked in a geosynchronous orbit over the Bering Sea.  Most of the Morning Stars expended all their propulsion mass getting into that orbit.  They no longer have enough propulsion mass to maneuver much.  Basically, they are in the galactic equivalent of waiting on the side of the road for a can of gas.  We’ll need to run several resupply missions to get them fully functional again.”

“I thought they ran off cold fusion?”

“Cold fusion powers the directed energy weapons, and the railguns for those that have them.  To maneuver they need propulsion mass.  We need to resupply them.”

“How long will all this take?”

“A month. Maybe more, depending on how fast we can get launch vehicles and people up there.  One of our asteroid mining teams just snagged a nice, large chunk of ice.  That will help.”

Lions sighed.  "Press ahead on the resupply as quickly as possible.  Don't wait for Congress.  On this matter, assume that body is irrelevant."

Greylick nodded but asked, “But what about the network attack.  Given the unique nature of this code, and the fact that the Morning Star system was successfully hacked into once, it was likely it can be done again.  There is a narrative going around that The Colonel did the hacking, but I know for a fact it wasn’t him.  We can bear false witness against whomever we need to for the purposes of internal state security, but the fact is whatever of whoever hacked our space-based weapons may do it again.”

"True," Lions said.  "But we need the Morning Stars’ collection capabilities.  If anybody is left down there in Gomorrah, the Chief Marshal wants to extend the olive branch to them and start reconciliation. We need to know what's going on." Lions paused.  Then he said, "A month?"

“Probably longer,” Greylick admitted.  “In the meantime, we have a few drones and probes we can put to good use.  The Youngblood is right off the California coast.  We could re-task it.  Have it use its onboard and unmanned collections assets to start soaking up electronic signatures.”

“Isn’t the Youngblood the ship carrying all the coffee?”

Greylick shrugged.  “Before this is over we all will have to make our sacrifices.”

###

It was a short trip from Greylick’s office to Lion’s next destination.  New Sparta’s Capital Guard Regiment maintained a firing range at the southern end of the city.  It was an old Seattle Police range.  When Lions arrived, he was welcomed with the sound of automatic fire.  Members of the Capital Guard were training with a new weapon system.  Overseeing this training was the Commander of the Capital Guard, Colonel Hendrick Needles.

Colonel Lions prided himself on his professionalism.  As a staff officer, it was his job to have a positive working relationship with all the various personalities strung out throughout New Sparta’s hierarchy.  Even so, Lions could not stand Needles.  He found the man incompetent, arrogant, sycophantic, and at least as dumb as a sack of doorknobs.  Needles had made a career out of brown-nosing and fart-catching.   He was loyal, only because he lacked the imagination to scheme, plot, or think independently.  A skinny man, with a gaunt, pointed and lizard-like face, Lions had not liked Needles since the moment he first met him.  That was over two decades before when they both had been students at the Knights Course.  Lions had graduated from Major K’s course of instruction, but Needles had not lasted thirty days before dropping at his own request.  If Needle’s inept nature, slow mind, and pompous ass weren’t enough, the man had a twin brother.  As if one Needles wasn’t enough of a curse, Lions had to deal with two of them, each a mirror image disaster of the other.  Fortunately for Lions, Colonel Brown Needles (purportedly the elder twin, although it was hard to say as each twin claimed to be the first from the womb) was overseeing the evacuation of the New Spartan forces at Confluence, where he served as the commanding officer.

Needles stood behind the firing line.  When Lions approached, Needles didn’t offer any greeting, welcome, or even a handshake.  The fool was under the assumption that just because he was the same rank as Lions, who had direct access to the Chief Marshal, they were peers.  When Lions came abreast of Needles, Needles, who had been watching the training through a set of wrap-around mirrored sunglasses said grandly, “What we’re looking at here is the end of the infantry.”

On the firing line ahead of them were four Capital Guardsmen dressed in hulking robotic armored suits.  Each suit was painted in a pseudo-camouflage pattern comprised of the same colors as the Capital Guards’ dress uniforms; scarlet, black and gold.  This color scheme was a vivid contrast with the regular Spartan army's dust-colored fatigues.  Each armor suited soldier now stood about seven feet tall.  Articulated armor encased their bodies, and full facepieces allowed them to see their surroundings.  Mounted on the right arm of each soldier's armor was an automatic rifle.  The rifles chattered away, ripping apart cardboard targets downrange.  Colonel Needles continued.

“Each suit has an integrated assault rifle and a 20 mm grenade launcher.  They have built-in communications suites, hydraulic exoskeletons for augmented strength, and their own ten-minute air supply.  The composite armor can stop .50 caliber at an angle and can stop .30 caliber head on.”

“How many of these are there?”

"Just six.  The four we’re testing today and two more back at depot," Needles said.  Then he added vaguely, "It’s Larry Niven’s vision made real.”

Lions wanted to say, ‘Actually, its Robert Heinlein’s vision, you fucking moron.'  Instead, Lion's agreed by saying, "On the bounce."

“Huh?” Needles asked.

“Nothing,” Lions said quickly and dismissively, not wanting to get caught up in a literature debate with somebody who probably never read a book on his own.  “We need to talk.  The Chief Marshal is going to need the Capital Guard to step up and do some heavy lifting.  He needs you and your people on point.”

That got Needle’s attention.

“Needs us for what, exactly?”

“A Spartan Knight was able to steal a nuclear weapon, smuggle it out of the city, and conduct an unauthorized detonation.  So far, we don’t know who helped.  We also have a team of Spartan Knights, one of which is The Colonel’s son, who have disappeared, obviously with the help of Major K.  Major K’s motives were always questionable, even before the nuke.  The Crown Prince may have also played a role.  In short, there are people within the structure who are politically unreliable.  You and your unit are responsible for capital security.  We need to ensure the capital is secure.”

Needles nodded, his lizard-like head bobbing on his thin neck.  “We stand ready to do whatever the Chief Marshal needs done.  Anything.  When do I take the team to the Motor City?”

“You don’t,” Lions said.  “I do.”

Needles rounded on Lions and screamed.  "What?  This is bullshit.  These are my men and my unit.  You don't get to task them, and you don’t get to command them, not without my say so.”

“And the Chief Marshal commands you,” Lions pointed out coolly.

“You’re not the Chief Marshal. You’re just a colonel, same as me.”  Needles screamed, louder this time.  On the firing line, the shooting stopped.  The men all looked back at the two colonels, one red in the face and shouting at the other.  Lions noticed the interruption in training, but Needles didn’t.  Spittle frothed at the corner of his mouth.

“Why do you need to go out to the Motor-City anyway?  What’s out there?”

“That’s the Chief Marshal’s business,” Lions answered, still calm.

“No, it isn’t, not if my men are involved,” Needles said, still screaming.  Lions watched as one of the men on the line removed his armored helmet.  “If it is my men, it is my business.”

“You forget yourself, colonel,” Lions said, his voice very calm and very cold.  His tone was still low and even, but he had had about enough of this fool Needles.  On top of all his other negative qualities, the man was a bully as well.  Lions knew how to deal with bullies, even if they were wearing colonel’s eagles.  Needles continued his tirade.

“You don’t get to tell me how to run my regiment.  I run this outfit, and I’ll go right up to the Chief Marshal and tell him that my damn self.  These are my men.  Nobody runs them but me.  Nobody tasks them but me.”

Lions decided that was enough.  He stepped into Needles, so close they were almost nose to nose, and glared.  Lions spoke very quietly, so only the two of them could hear.

“The enlisted men can hear your little tantrum.  You’re embarrassing yourself, and you’re insulting the Chief Marshal.  You either knock it off, or I’m going to knock you the fuck out.”

That deflated Needles in an instant.  He stepped back. His head dropped.  The color of his skin went first to purple, but then quickly cooled back to red, then pink.  Lions chose to ignore the incident in the interest of not wasting his own time.

“The Capital guard is the only regiment the Chief Marshal trusts.  He doesn’t like grunts.  He doesn’t trust the field regiments, and he certainly doesn’t trust Spartan Knights.”

“You are a Spartan Knight,” Needles observed.

“I’m the one and only exception.  Regardless of my own status my initial observation still stands.  The Chief Marshal finds the field units untrustworthy, and their commanders’ modes of thinking outdated.  That leaves the Capital Guard to perform the heavy lifting.”

Needles nodded at this information and its implications.  Then he asked, “What about my brother?”

“What about him?”

“I don’t think the Chief Marshal should trust him either.  He was never a Spartan Knight, but he is commanding a unit in the field.  And he and The Colonel were close.  You and the Chief Marshal would do to keep a close eye on him.”

Lions saw this for what it was.  Bitter sibling rivalry.  Another palace intrigue.  Courtier backstabbing.  The idea that The Colonel was in league with Brown Needles was laughable.  The Colonel had less time for the Needles brothers than Lions did.  Lions knew this was not worth his time, so he dismissed it.  He dismissed it politely, but he dismissed it all the same.

“Your brother Brown has his hands full evacuating confluence.  We will leave him to that for now.”
Needles grimaced.  That apparently wasn't the reply he wanted.  But he brightened quickly enough.

“When do we get to start rounding people up and arresting them?”

“Nobody said anything about mass roundups and arrests.”

“They never do,” Needles replied.  “Until its time to start the mass roundups and arrests.”

Lions turned to Needles, shocked.  That was perhaps the one and only time he heard anything insightful from the lizard-faced man.  A roar erupted from the firing line, and both men turned their heads to see what it was.  The trainees had returned to their business.  One of the armor-suited guardsmen opened fire with his grenade launcher.  The grenades came out in automatic fire. Each one impacted in a perfectly calculated sheaf, and they ripped apart a row of targets representing a line of people.  Needles broke the moment by speaking.

“When it’s time to take down Major K, I want to be the one to do it.”

“Your regiment will get that task,” Lions replied.

“No,” Needles said forcefully, and he grabbed Lions by the arm, turning him so he could look right into his eyes.

“When its time to take down Major K, I want to be there.  Personally.  I want to look right into that bastard's eyes when he gets hauled off to the stockade.  That bastard kicked me out of the Knights Course. He had it in for me.  Well, karma has come around, and he's about to get his."
Lions remembered the circumstances surrounding Needles departure from the Knights Course differently but said nothing.  He couldn’t waste any more time with this idiot.  Needles jerked his head towards the armored suits on the firing line.

“I’m going to use these when I do it.  I'm going to show that washed up grunt that his time has passed.  It is my time now.  My time.  With these suits, I'll go through that has been like he never was."

“I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Major K,” Lions said.  Needles chortled.

“Look at the suits.  Look at the firepower.  Look at the armor.  What chance does one tired old grunt have against that kind of technology?”

Lions didn’t know what to say to that.  So, he didn’t say anything.


The Spartan Navy Frigate Youngblood, off the Central California Coast

"Attention on the bridge, flash message traffic for the Captain," the communications officer announced.  Commander Visconti, Captain of the Youngblood, turned to the young and bandaged Spartan Naval lieutenant junior grade and took the yellow piece of paper out of his hand.  The ship had been in a fight recently, and the ensign had a cut on his cheek that would scar up very nicely.

“My eyes only?” Visconti asked.

“Yes, sir,” the ensign answered.

“So, what does it say?”

The ensign straightened up.  "The Youngblood is to remain on station off the coast of The Bay and conduct, signature collection, surveillance, and reconnaissance with our onboard assets."

Commander Visconti frowned and exchanged a glance with the Chief of the Boat.  The chief also frowned.  In addition to being in a scrape, the Youngblood had been at sea for some time.  The crew was not going to like being extended at sea.  Crews rarely do, especially when they are close to home.

“Did you let them know we have a cargo hold full of coffee,” Visconti asked hopefully.  The ensign nodded.

"Yes, sir.  And the order still stands."

The Captain and his chief exchanged another knowing glance.  “All the coffee in New Sparta is held in the hold of this boat, and they want us to sit off the coast and shoot drones into the sky.  What do you think about that, chief?”

The chief shrugged.  "Yes, sir.  I guess somebody really wants to know what's going on out there in The Bay."

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

---Chapter 11---

Cora
Cora smeared the dark paint in lines across her face.  Her hair was tied back into a tight ponytail, which she would tuck into a black wool cap when she went out.  Her rifle, freshly cleaned and lubricated, rested against the bathroom vanity at which she worked.  She completed the dark lines across her face and then selected lighter colors of paint to fill in the gaps between the tiger stripes;, earthy tones of green, gray and brown.  Pinned near the wall beside her was a hand-drawn calendar with today's date circled in red.

The night sky hosted a full moon.  The Pale found the full moon important, and thus Cora found the full moon important.  On the night of the full moon they engaged in their pseudo-religious events.  The full moon was when they offered sacrifices to their false god.  Those were hard to watch, but Cora had grown a hard heart.  If watching John Pale’s morbid rituals might reveal a weakness to exploit, Cora would watch.  She’d watched many before and hadn’t found anything yet, except for maybe that her cousin, John Pale’s hostage, was never present.  That meant that while the entirety of the Pale tribe was outside, her COUSIN was inside, locked up in either John Pale’s quarters or the dungeon complex dug underneath the Pale’s compound.  Maybe, just maybe, there would be a way to get in there during one of the ceremonies and perform a rescue.  Maybe.

She checked herself over in the bathroom mirror.  The face paint was good-to-go.  She'd covered the back of her neck, the backs of her ears, just like her books said she should.  All her equipment was secured to prevent any unnecessary noise.  Her weapons were ready, should she need them.  She didn't think she would though.  Her perch on the hill was a far way away from the Pale compound.  Chances were they'd never know she was there, spying on them.  They hadn't noticed her so far, but that did not mean you took unnecessary chances.  One wrong move or a bit of bad luck, and her days of playing soldier would be over.  She couldn't afford any mistakes at all.

That was why she did all this all by herself.  There was nobody within her own tribe she trusted to have the military professionalism to do what needed to be done.  She wished she had a team of her own, a real team.  A team who could come in and end this conflict with the Pale once and for all.  That was a nice dream.  For now, she was on her own.

Cora racked the bolt on her rifle, then checked the chamber.  She was rewarded with a flash of brass.  Satisfied with that, she set off to see what the Pale were up to.


Jimmy Pale

Jimmy Pale stood awash in the full moon’s pale glow.  The other members of the Pale tribe stood around him.  All were arranged before the tall, tarpaulin-covered structure, like an audience.  All wore white robes of rough cloth.  Jimmy also wore his war hammer, tucked neatly into his belt beneath his robe.  The women they’d taken captive, their ‘tunnel wives,’ were safely locked up and drugged out of their minds, comfortably numb in the catacombs beneath the palisade protected camp.  The children, a dozen total, were tied to a dozen crosses arranged in the center of the compound.  In the middle of these crosses, a podium stood atop a raised platform.  Jimmy felt both uneasy and embarrassed.  He always did on these nights of the full moon.  But he didn’t feel this way because of the children.  He was embarrassed for his father.  Before coming out, he sniffed up a little bit of the narcotic powder they made.  Not too much, just enough to help him through the evening.

Behind the audience, Jimmy’s brother George talked amiably with some other members of the Pale.  His brother was tall.  A bald head sat on broad shoulders.  Pink eyes gleamed.  George’s pale skin reflected the glow of the full moon.  George leaned on a spear.  No, not a spear, Jimmy corrected himself, the voice in his head was that of his father.  It was not a spear.  It was a lance.  The book, Doctor Chosen’s book, described it as a lance.

Jimmy looked at his brother with disgust and envy.  Jimmy was the one that led the raiding parties.  Jimmy was the one who sat in ambush along the roadside all day, deciding which travelers to let pass and which to attack.  He was the one that brought his hammer down on the heads of the men and the boys too old to bring back.  George sat in the compound all day, getting high and living easy, comfortable in the knowledge that the leadership of the tribe would pass on to him.  Jimmy fingered his hammer absentmindedly.  He was the one doing the work, he should be the one to lead the tribe, not his brother the dilettante.  His father foolishly placed all his faith in the departed Doctor Chosen and the Earth Mother, and so much other nonsense, as Jimmy was about to witness firsthand, again.

The interior of the compound was lit by pole lights run off a generator.  The lights dimmed, and the crowd hushed.  A spotlight hit the podium, and Jimmy watched his father take the stage.

“Children,” his father began in a voice the belied his sickly appearance.  The old man looked ghoulish in the light; pale skin and bristly black hair, coke-bottle glasses that magnified half of the face.  The old man shook with palsy.  He’s high again, Jimmy though.  He glanced around the periphery, looking for the red-headed hostage.  She was nowhere to be seen.  Jimmy decided she must still be chained up in his dad’s office.

His father shook wildly again.  A trembling hand rose up and removed the glasses.  A pair of mole-like pinprick eyes stared out into the crowd.

“My children, children of the Pale,” John Pale continued.  “Once again, we gather together on the night of the full moon, to pay honor to the Earth Mother and now to the Great Father, Doctor Chosen, who has rejoined the Earth Mother.  Together they look down upon us, their chosen children, from the light of the full moon.”

The eyes of the Pale, even Jimmy’s, rose to look at the moon.  Jimmy quickly dropped his eyes and turned to look back at his brother.  George stood at the rear of the assembly, smiling and holding the long lance.  Jimmy’s stomach turned.  He wanted to cringe.  His father kept speaking, his voice taking on the rhythm and pitch of a preacher at the gospels.

“Before he left this world, the Great Father left us his gifts.  These are his blessings to us, his chosen people.  We are the ones who will rise up to rule this world for the Earth Mother.  We, the Pale.  The first of these blessings is his book of secrets.  It contains all the Great Father’s secrets, all his knowledge, all his riddles.”

Next John Pale gestured dramatically to the draped structure.  “This is his second gift.  The golem!”

Members of the Pale pulled ropes, and the draping of tarps fell off the tall structure.  What was revealed was a statue made of plaster covered wood.  It stood thirty feet high.  The statue had a face similar to the heads on Easter Island.  Its plaster skin as pale as its albino worshippers.

John Pale held up the leather-bound book.  Written on its cover in faux gold leaf were the words, “Holy Bible.”  John continued.

"I tell you, I have unlocked the Doctor's secret.  I have the key to the golem.  Tonight, with the power of blood, and sacrifice, and the Great Father’s magic, our golem will rise!”

‘Charlatan,’ Jimmy thought.  John opened the book to a marked section and read aloud.

“One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance, and immediately there came out blood and water.”  John snapped the book shut.  His mole-like eyes burned with intensity.  He stared out at the crowd.

“This is his riddle.  This is the key to making our golem rise.  The Earth Mother’s son, his side was pierced with a lance.”  Jimmy felt sick with embarrassment for his father. They’d been through this many times before.  His father began rambling on, the speech of a madman.  The idea was that the wood and plaster golem would come to life and be the vanguard of the Pale as they rose up to take over the world.  The secret to bringing the golem to life was found somewhere in the bible Doctor Chosen had given them.  Supposedly by acting out some bible passage his father could bring the golem to life and usher in a new age.

“So, with a lance we shall spill sacrificial blood, and the golem shall reward us all,” John Pale shouted.

They’d been sold a bill of goods as far as Jimmy was concerned.  That golem had not come to life yet, despite numerous ceremonies and no shortage of sacrifices.  It was all a farce.  Doctor Chosen had played a trick on them.  That golem was never going to come to life.  This was all the doctor getting one over on the country rubes.  And now, even from the grave, Doctor Chosen still manipulated them.

Back at the podium.  John waved for George to come forward.  George approached, lance in hand.  He moved to the nearest of the crucified children.

“The golem will rise,” John Pale shouted from the podium.  Other members of the Pale repeated the statement.  Half-heartedly at first, but they repeated it.

“The golem will rise!”

Jimmy felt dizzy.  Was it the drugs?  Or was it something else.

“The golem will rise,” his father shouted again.  And this time the crowd responded more loudly.

“The golem will rise!” they shouted.  And Jimmy noticed that some were swaying to a soundless beat.  “The golem will rise!”  And George stepped forward and raised his lance. A big smile slashed across his face, big and red, like smeared lipstick.  “The golem will rise!”  And Jimmy definitely felt something.  And the lance flashed brightly, and Jimmy didn’t look because Jimmy didn’t want to look.  And the members of the Pale were screaming even more loudly now.  “The golem will rise!”  And Jimmy saw a woman snorting up dust from the web of a man’s worm-pale hand. And, “The golem will rise!” was shouted again.  And John Pale was convulsing at the podium, beady little eyes bouncing up and down as if they were on springs.  “The golem will rise!”  And George stalked from cross to cross, lancing flashing.  “The golem will rise!”  And a woman next to Jimmy dropped to her knees.  Blood flowed out of each sniffing nostril.  Red blood on pale skin, like roses on a snowbank.  She screamed and banged at her meaty thighs, yelling in chorus.  “The golem will rise!”  And Jimmy found himself yelling too.  “The golem will rise!”  And Jimmy found himself looking at the golem, looking into its Easter Island face, looking into its Easter Island Eyes.  “The golem will rise!”  Jimmy didn’t want to shout, but he was shouting. “The  golem will rise!”  And for a moment he thought he saw movement.  He thought he saw the golem move, just a little.  “The golem will rise!”  It was just a twitch, but it was there Jimmy’s mind screamed.  “The golem will rise!”  Just a wiggle of the ear, a wink of the eye.  “The golem will rise!”  And now Jimmy found himself fully caught up in it, even though before he didn’t want to be.  “The golem will rise!”  He found himself believing, just like all the others.  “The golem will rise!” And there was blood all over the ground.  And the Earth Mother and Doctor Chosen were looking down on them.  “The golem will rise!”  They were both looking down on the Pale “The golem will rise!”  On the people who were destined to rule the world.  “The golem will rise! The golem will rise! The golem will rise!”

The golem did not rise.  George held the bloody lance.  A dozen small forms slumped against their ropes on their crosses.  Blood stained the ground.  The statue remained a statue.  Unmoving. Inanimate. Lifeless.

Jimmy Pale had believed for a moment, but this ceremony ended the way all the others did.  With nothing.

Members of the Pale shuffled off in their various directions, their dreams again unrealized.  And the golem looked down on Jimmy with its empty, plaster eyes.  Jimmy fingered his hammer.  ‘Someday,' he told himself.  ‘Someday I'm going to end this nonsense once and for all.  Someday I’m going to take over this tribe.  Someday.'

‘Someday.'

---Chapter 12---

The Youngblood

Stationed just over the horizon from the city that once was San Francisco, the Spartan frigate Youngblood launched two drones that morning.  The first was dispatched from amidships via a catapult that worked in the same manner as the Youngblood’s railguns.  The proper way to think of this drone was not as a flying machine with cameras and radios mounted to it.  The proper way to consider this machine was as a computer that among other things, could fly.

The flying computer climbed to the proper altitude, considered the weather, recalculated the optimum altitude for the mission, and would continue to recalculate and adjust at a rate of 100 times every second.  Running entirely off batteries, the computer then calculated power available, consumption rate, and the power required to return to the Youngblood.  Then it began allotting power to the dozens of cameras mounted across its fuselage.  Feeds went directly back to the Youngblood.  Onboard the Youngblood was a human operator, but his job was almost superfluous.  Algorithms inside the computer reviewed the data from the live feeds and determined if anything warranted greater attention; things like smoke plumes, highspeed movements, light reflections, concentrations of what might be people.  The algorithms reviewed the data multiple times every second.  If this drone found something particularly interesting, it would route power to a pair of digital cameras equipped with telescopic lenses originally designed for space exploration.

The second drone was launched from a telescoping pole off the fantail.  Written in calligraphy on the side of this drone was the name, “Eve’s Dropper.”  Beneath the name was the picture of a healthy woman in a suggestive pose, holding a finger to her pouty red lips in a “don’t talk” gesture.  This drone might be best thought of as a flying sponge, only instead of soaking up water, it soaked up electromagnetic energy.  Built throughout this aircraft were a host of antenna, the biggest of which was a dome-shaped one on its belly.  If any electromagnetic energy passed within the line-of-sight of the Eve’s Dropper, they would be overheard by the drone’s various sensors.  Thus, if somebody wanted to remain hidden from Eve, they’d do well to dispose of anything that sent or received signals.

Since it worked by line of sight, Eve’s Dropper climbed up near its maximum operating altitude.  Once there, it listened.


Claw
Claw looked up at the sky.  He felt uneasy, though he wasn’t sure why.  The sky didn’t show any dangers.  There was nothing but clear, blue, California sky from horizon to horizon.  Still, Claw felt uneasy about the sky.  But, knowing he couldn’t do anything about it, he gave up on that worry and focused on other, more actionable and immediate concerns.

Gomorrah, or, as Claw now considered it, Winston’s Empire, was still a shitshow.  Even so, some progress had been made.  Baby steps only, but baby steps were a start.  The chief mechanic had not only found a wrecker but got it working.  They now had sixteen of the M113 armored personnel carriers arranged in a neat row near the monument to doctor chosen.  One might be running as soon as that evening, but only if Doctor Chosen and the Earth Mother willed it.  That last bit of wisdom came from the Oracle, who remained a thorn in Claw's side.

The other bit of progress was that Claw now had not only an office but several offices from which to work.  Tomas, his trusted assistant, had organized his fellow orphans and urchins into scavenging parties and they'd found about a dozen of the kinds of trailers used as temporary offices at construction sites.  The trailers were dilapidated, and three had disintegrated when they tried to move them. The rest had survived the trip into the camp, and they now served as the operations and logistics center of Winston's Empire.  Claw now had working space to deal with his self-appointed task of day-to-day operations.  There was a downside to this though.  Since he now had his own office, this meant the Oracle had more time alone with Winston.  In the long run, that wouldn’t work out well for Claw, or for the empire.  He had to figure out a way to deal with the Oracle.  The most logical answer, cold-blooded as it was, was to just kill him off.  Kill him and Raux and anybody else he needed to kill.  Such an act made sense, right up until you considered how Winston might react, or the increasing number of mods drawn under the Oracle’s glamour.

The most significant step forward had been Winston's approval of sending parties out into the rest of the empire.  These parties, organized of 100 people per party, were dispatched with a mission to, “gather tribute.”  Four parties had been sent out already, and the Oracle had organized and launched his own fifth party.  That was comprised entirely of mods of course, but Claw didn't care.  Altogether that meant 500 fewer mouths to feed here.  Things being what they were, Claw bet that half the people who left wouldn't return, but if the survivors brought something back, it might be a net positive for Winston’s Empire.  That would be a nice change of pace.

Another party was about to depart, and Claw used this period to relax a bit.  He sat outside, at a square table, big enough for four people that he guessed was once used in a restaurant.  Scattered about its surface were various pieces of paper held down with rocks.  Behind him, workers building the monument to the doctor hammered away.  Claw had learned to tune that noise out and doodled with a piece of charcoal.  Out of the corner of his eye, he caught his ward, Tomas, approaching.  The big-eyed kid had something clenched to his chest, something rectangular and wrapped in a piece of leather.  Claw set down his bit of charcoal and watched Tomas approach.  The kid's eyes brightened, and a smile filled his face.  That, in turn, made Claw happy.  If nothing else, he'd maybe brought some degree of comfort and joy to this kid's otherwise tragic life.

“Cassandra,” a voice bellowed behind him.  Claw jumped in his seat and turned.  Behind him, Winston Indigo loomed.  Claw immediately noticed that Winston called him, ‘Cassandra,’ not ‘Claw.’  That put him ill at ease.  The next thing Claw noticed was that Winston was armed not just with his gold-plated machinegun, but also with a large grenade launcher that was fed from a drum.  The grenade launcher looked like nothing more than a big revolver in Winston’s hands.

“Yes, sir,” Claw said, leaping to his feet.

Winston looked around absently and said, “the next group is ready to launch.  Let’s go and see them off.”

They set off together, and if Winston had any reason for calling Claw by his ‘trad name,’ he didn’t say why.  They found the next party assembled near the row of armored personnel carriers.  Those had been ripped apart, and their components lay strewn about like entrails, their fluids and lubricants staining the ground like blood.  Claw paid little notice to the vehicles.  He focused on this latest party.  Instead of the typical 100 personnel, this one was made up of only twenty.  Also, while other groups had set out on foot, this one was mounted entirely in vehicles.  And these vehicles actually looked roadworthy.  Most important of all, this party was led by the blue-feathered swordsman from the other day.  The one that staged the farce conflict between trads and mods.  Naturally, his party was comprised entirely of mods.  Claw didn’t like the look of that.

“You ready to go,” Winston asked.  He extended an open hand to the swordsman, who now wore a matched pair of real swords instead of carrying a wooden one.  The swordsman looked at the open hand, considered a moment, then shook it.

“We’re ready.”

"Shall we get the Oracle?  Offer you a final blessing before your journey?" Winston offered.  The swordsman looked uneasily from Winston to Claw, and then back again.

“No,” he said.  “Time’s wasting.”  The swordsman turned to go, but Claw interrupted.

“Normally these parties are a hundred strong.  You’ve got maybe twenty,” Claw said, and he let the statement hang in the air.

“I can’t feed a hundred men.  I can’t find vehicles to move that many either.”  He jerked his scarred head in the direction the last party departed to. “Those big groups…  those big groups will likely die out there.  Most of them anyway.  Maybe that’s the whole point.”  He said this pointedly, with his narrow eyes locked onto Claw, as if Winston wasn’t even there.  “Maybe it isn’t.  I don’t care either way.  But me and mine, we aren’t going out there to die.  I survived this long.  I intend to keep surviving.  Whatever it takes.”

Claw didn’t like this swordsman’s manner, but he told himself not to be afraid.  Claw asked, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name?”

“Kobi,” the swordsman said.  He didn’t offer a hand to Claw.  Claw didn’t offer his own.

“Where are you heading,” Winston asked.  Before Kobi could answer there came a loud bang that made them all turn.  It sounded like a gunshot.  But when a puff of blue smoke cleared they saw it came from one of the armored personnel carriers Claw’s mechanic was working one.

“South,” Kobi said when they regained themselves.  “South, down into the central valley.  There is a place down the old I-5 corridor, a ranch that might have cattle.”

Claw looked over Kobi's motley assembly of vehicles.  "If you find cattle, how would you bring them back?"

Kobi’s scarred face was impassive.  “I have to find out if these cattle are even there first. If there are, I’ll figure the rest out as I go.”  And while Claw didn’t like Kobi, he got the sense that the man would.

“We should be going then,” Kobi said.  He gave a curt bow to Winston, who dismissed the swordsman with a wave.  In short order, Kobi’s convoy rumbled out of the camp in an orderly file, heading south, heading out to reclaim Winston’s Empire.  Still watching, Claw asked his giant-emperor, “Where is the Oracle?”  Winston, ever the stoic, didn’t answer.  He only gave a wiggle of his massive shoulders that could have meant anything.

Behind them came another bang.  However, this one was followed by a sputtering cough.  Then came a second bang, and one of the armored personnel carrier’s engines rumbled to life.  The engine coughed and spat, reluctant to turn over, but turning over just the same.  A great cloud of blue smoke issued out the exhaust and enveloped a crowd of onlookers, who cheered nonetheless.  Claw smiled.

“Well, looks like we might be getting somewhere at last.”

Winston said not a word.

The choking blue smoke of the armored personnel carrier curled upward, up around the monument to doctor Chosen, and up into the clear blue sky.

Colt

After the excitement of inserting deep into Gomorrah and occupying Lefranc’s secret tunnel, the days were filled with monotony.  Lefranc told them they needed to eat, and sleep, and eat again, and recover from the Knights Course.  So, they did, but grudgingly.  Young men aren’t inclined to sit still, even the ones who’ve been trained to.  They did what Lefranc asked.  They ate rations and slept.  They worked out as best they could, doing pushups and sit-ups, substituting what was on hand for weights.  Ajax would clutch a pair of water cans to his chest and do squats until his legs gave out.  Doc poured over his medical gear, and Christian poured over his small arsenal of explosives, always with either a pinch of tobacco in his cheek or a can of energy drink in his hands.  Robins had of all things a copy of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.  Colt observed the one-armed man read through the text, pausing from time to time to scribble notes in the margins.

Their warden, the old man Lefranc did little and spoke less.  He rarely slept.  He spent his days near the mouth of the tunnel, looking back across the valley to the opposite ridge.  How long were they going to stay here?  What was the plan?  What was their next step?  What was going on back in New Sparta?  What about his dad?  What of his mother?  Colt asked all these questions in his head, but he didn't ask Lefranc.  He left the old man alone, brooding at the mouth of the tunnel.

The Crown Prince
The Crown Prince made good on his promise and took Elizabeth to see the family that her husband had saved on his Last March.  Empatico, the grandfather, his daughter Lina, her husband E-Deal, and their baby were all sequestered in what was originally built as a luxury condominium in the heart of the city.  Now, this luxury condo functioned as a luxury prison cell. Empatico and his family enjoyed New Sparta’s hospitality while the leadership decided what to do with them.  This apartment was many stories up and thus offered a sweeping view of the Puget Sound.  The height also complicated any escape attempts.

When Elizabeth saw Lina’s baby, a baby which her husband delivered, she took to it as if she were its grandmother.  Lina and E-Deal were quickly won over by Elizabeth’s charm and charisma.  She swept through the apartment, taking up the baby in her arms to, “give its mother a break,” and spent the next hour or so doting over the child, lending Lina a sympathetic ear, and (perhaps patiently) making pleasant small talk with E-Deal.  Throughout all this, both Empatico and the Crown Prince remained aloof, observing the scene from opposite ends of the apartment.

When it was time to go, Empatico walked Elizabeth and the Crown Prince to the apartment door.  There, Elizabeth opened her purse for a few moments too long, and produced a small gift for Lina and promised to return soon for another visit.

Outside in the hallway, the Crown Prince and Elizabeth passed a four-man team of Capital Guardsmen dressed in black and scarlet.  One of them locked the apartment door from the outside.  Both Elizabeth and the Crown Prince were certain more Capital Guardsmen were in the building and watching and listening to them through the cameras and devices spread throughout the hallways.  So, neither spoke until they were back in the Crown Prince’s car and out on the streets of the Emerald City.  The Crown Prince was the first to speak.

"What the hell is that in your purse?  And I don't mean the pistol or your lipstick.”

“You don’t know?  And here I thought you were a Spartan Knight.”

The Crown Prince took his eyes off the road to shoot Elizabeth a reproachful look.  She sighed loudly as if she found his inquiry tiresome.

“As you very well know, it’s a Russian RGD-5 fragmentation grenade.”

“Where did you get that?” the Crown Prince asked.

“At the gettin’ place,” Elizabeth answered without a pause.

Now the Crown Prince sighed.  “What the hell are you doing with that?”

“If I am lucky I might get a chance to throw it at Chief Marshal Gorman,” Elizabeth answered candidly.  The Crown Prince’s face went ashen.  Elizabeth laughed.  “Don’t worry, I won’t do anything rash unless I have to.  Did you hear about Groups 3 and 4?”

“How do you know about the numbered Groups?”

“I have my sources,” Elizabeth said with a sly smile.  “Group 3 asked for an extension for one of their units in the field, and Group 4 is still unaccounted for.  Colonel Butler is catching heat for this, which I think brings me to my larger point.  You need to meet with Colonel Butler. You just might make him an ally.”

“You think Colonel Butler will stand against Chief Marshal Gorman?”

“Well, he commands all the numbered Groups and the Long Range Group.  He can’t be happy that Gorman pulled all his forces from the field.  He’s also a Spartan Knight, and Gorman was never popular amongst the Spartan Knights.

“No, he wasn’t,” The Crown Prince agreed.  “What else do your sources tell you?”
“The congress is holding a joint panel inquiry this afternoon.  Perry Applegate and a few of his cronies.  Colonel Butler is supposed to be there.  As Crown Prince, you have the prerogative of sitting in on any of those sessions.”

“What are you suggesting?” The Crown Prince asked.

“As I told you before, you need to build a coalition against Gorman.  Go to the meeting, and approach Colonel Butler after.  If that fat boar Applegate humiliates Butler during the session, which I can only assume he will, so much the better.  Butler will be more pliable to joining you against Applegate, and against Gorman.”

“And what is Colonel Butler supposed to be able to do for us?”

Elizabeth sighed again as if she'd run out of patience dealing with a particularly dense child. "He commands a few thousand Spartan Knights, the most combat experienced troops in our army.  And thanks to Gorman’s recall, they are all back in the capital.”

The Crown Prince turned from the steering wheel again.  “I don’t like what you are implying.”

“My dear,” Elizabeth said.  “You may not like it, but you need to be realistic.”

Empatico
The Crown Prince was not the only one who saw what was in Elizabeth’s purse.  Empatico also saw the pistol and the hand grenade next to it.  He'd seen similar grenades before when The Colonel defended his farmhouse from the band of slavers.  Those slavers had come in a pack that day, but their numbers had not mattered.  The Colonel went through them like a scythe through wheat, killing them almost to a man.  Empatico appreciated The Colonel’s selfless act that day, just as he also appreciated how The Colonel arranged for them to get back to New Sparta, where his grandchild could get the medical attention he deserved.  But Empatico didn't let his appreciation overshadow what he knew to be true; these Spartans were killers, and if men like The Colonel decided they were going to kill, there was no stopping them.

Empatico and his family never lived in such luxury before.  This apartment with its sweeping views was a far cry from their tumbledown farmhouse.  They had all the food they could eat, clean water, and a real doctor checked on the baby regularly.  Here they had comfort and safety that Empatico never experienced before in his long life.

Even so, they were still prisoners.  The apartment door locked from the outside, and Spartan guards in black and scarlet uniforms stood watch.  Empatico knew that a large part of this hospitality stemmed from the fact that New Sparta’s leadership didn’t know what else to do with them.  At some point, they could be turned back out into the Gomorrah badlands.  Or worse, the Spartans might decide to just kill them, in which case some man like The Colonel would enter the apartment, and Empatico would be powerless to stop him

Empatico could also sense the tension between the Spartans.  While The Colonel might have saved Empatico and his family, his actions on his “Last March” were not appreciated amongst all the members of New Sparta, that much was obvious.  If fighting broke out in the Spartan ranks, Empatico didn’t want his family anywhere near it.  Empatico could appreciate the hospitality of these Spartans, but he would not allow himself to trust them. And despite the veneer of comfort and safety, he knew this place wasn’t safe.  Someway, somehow, he’d have to break himself and his family free of this prison.

Robert Murray

Despite being a career politician, Robert Murray did not feel he knew much about political science.  However, he was confident in his belief that democracies moved slowly, and clumsily, whereas totalitarian states moved quickly.  Today in New Sparta, things were moving swiftly.

After being cornered by Perry Applegate, Murray found himself appointed to over a dozen committees and sub-committees, many he never knew existed before being named to them.  If he had any ambitions, Murray would have been thrilled to be on so many committees.  As it was, Robert found sitting in so many meetings dull, and a waste of time that would be better spent on the golf course.  He also found them a little disturbing, given how quickly issues were decided with so little debate.

Today he was part of some joint inquiry of something or other, a meeting whose content had little to do with its title.  At the head of the conference table he and about twenty other politicians sat at, Perry Applegate shifted his enormous gut, coughed, then said, “Item of discussion: diverting all our space resources to fully resupply our Morning Stars and bringing them back online.  Thoughts?”

A few minutes into the meeting, Murray realized everybody in the room was one of Applegate’s cronies.  That meant he must be one of Applegate’s cronies too.  One politician, a diminutive man with body odor, dandruff, and an unpleasant attitude, spoke up immediately.  "Get them up and running immediately.  They’re not doing us good over the ocean.”

“Any objections?” Perry asked.  Robert had several objections.  Didn’t they just position all the Morning Stars over the Pacific at tremendous cost?  Why move them there just to move them back?  How much was it going to cost in resources to keep moving them back and forth?  Wasn’t one of the Morning Stars recently hacked?  Had that been resolved yet, or were these wonder weapons only going to be hacked into again?  All of Robert’s questions went unasked.

“No objections?  Good,” Perry said.  “I think we can declare that it is within our powers to decide this here in committee.  No need for us to bring it to the floor for a full vote. Now, next item…”  Perry shuffled through his notes.  “Okay, here it is.  Next item.  We halt any more training at the Knights Course until we complete an investigation into the ‘incident.’  Any objections?”

“Not from me,” two of the politicians at the table said nearly simultaneously.

Perry smiled.  “Good.  I feel it is also with our power to…”

“Well,” Robert Murray interrupted.  He sounded confused more than anything else.  “Well, is there an investigation into the… the ‘incident?’  I didn’t know there was one.”

“There is not,” Perry said.  His face was smiling, but there was no real smile there.

“Is there going to be an investigation?”

“Who can say?  That decision will be up to the Chief Marshal,” Perry said.  Again, there was the smile that really wasn’t a smile.

"But, how can we halt training at the Knights Course until the investigation is complete if we don't even know if there is going to be an investigation? That doesn't seem to make any sense."

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” the diminutive politician moaned.  “We just appropriated a new pinnace for the Navy to service the peninsula.  Your peninsula, Murray. Your peninsula, your district.  Let's just agree to shut down the training and move on.  With the Morning Stars up and running it is not like we need those knights anymore.”

“We never did,” another politician muttered.

Red-faced, Murray coughed out some words.  “I… I…just don’t think…”  his objection sputtered out, like a locomotive that ran out of steam.  More smiles from Perry Applegate.

“Mr. Murray, do you have an objection or not?”

Murray shifted uncomfortably in his seat.  “No.  No, I guess I don’t.”

“Good.  Training at the Knights Course is halted.  And, since that training is halted, I’ll let the Chief Marshal that he can reassign the cadre to other duties.”

“Don’t reassign Major K, not unless it is to the scrap pile,” an elderly politician with thick glasses and a manicured white beard said.  Laughs rose from all around the table.

“Okay, okay,” Applegate began, smiling at the joke but also getting control of the room once more.  "Next item also deals with the Spartan Knights."  That brought a groan from the back of the room.  Perry continued.  "Group 4 is still out of contact.  I think at this point it would be reasonable to assume they were killed.  And a sub-element of another numbered group is requesting an exemption to the general recall.  This element is in Western Europa presently.  I believe Colonel Butler is waiting outside?"  A Capital Guardsman, standing at the door and  serving as a Sergeant at Arms, nodded once.

“Okay send him in.”

The Sergeant at Arms opened the door and called outside.  But it wasn’t Colonel Butler who entered.  Instead, it was Colonel Lions.  Lions entered the room with his customary air of professionalism and efficiency.  But there was something more, Murray thought.  The usually reserved Lions looked like he was bottling something in. Enthusiasm maybe?  Joy?  Excitement?  Lions looked like someone who was giddy and trying very hard to contain his giddiness. Colonel Lions went to the head of the table and stood next to Perry Applegate.

“Gentlemen, I went ahead and dismissed Colonel Butler, as his testimony is not necessary.  The Chief Marshal has gone ahead an approved the exemption for our unit in Europa.  He has also officially declared Group 4 as killed in action.  Their last known location was in Central Asia, and that was some time ago.  Given the distances we would have to cover in a search, the Chief Marshal does not feel a recovery operation is warranted.”

"Couldn't we… couldn't we look for them with the Morning Stars when they get back online?" Murray asked, interrupting. Once again, he sounded more confused than anything else.  In truth, he hadn't even planned on speaking the words. They just rolled out of his mouth, and as soon as they did, he felt embarrassed for himself.  He was a man that made a political career out of not speaking.  Now, here he'd gone and asked embarrassing question after embarrassing question.  First to Perry Applegate, and now to Chief Marshal Gorman's personal aide.  Perry Applegate glared disapprovingly at Murray.  Lions however beamed, as if nothing could get him down.

“An excellent question, and one that segues into the real reason I am here.  It appears that the leadership of Gomorrah was not wiped out after all.”

Murmurs rose from around the table.  Somebody said, “the High Council of Nines.” Another said, “Doctor Chosen.”  Lions smiled and raised his hands to calm the room.

“A reconnaissance drone just sent back photo-intelligence of a Gomorrah operation outside The Bay at the old naval weapons station at Concord.  It looks like refugees from the area are gathering there.  Photos indicated a level of organization and sophistication to the operation.”

“Are any of the members of the High Council…”

“At this time, we cannot say for certain who is a position of leadership there.  All I can say right now is that the Chief Marshal is aware of the situation and is taking steps to determine what to do next.”

“A new Gomorrah army?” Somebody asked.

“I hardly think Gomorrah is in any position or has any inclination to do us harm right now,” Lions said with a smile.

Lions continued speaking, but Robert Murray turned his attention to the door.  The Crown Prince just walked into the room, moving quietly to the rear of the room.  Only a minute later a Capital Guardsman also entered the room, looked around, and then walked quickly up to the Crown Prince and whispered something urgently into his ear.  A few seconds after that, another guardsman entered the room and again whispered urgently to the Sergeant at Arms.

Lions continued.  “The Chief Marshal asks that we all remain sensitive to the feelings of the people of Gomorrah.  They have suffered a terrible injustice that will need to be corrected.”

The Sergeant at Arms moved quickly over to Perry Applegate.  At the same time, the other politicians around the table began pulling out their phones.  Something was clearly going on.  Murray looked to the Crown Prince.  All color had left the man's face.  At the other end of the table, Applegate let out a loud gasp, the Sergeant at Arms still whispering in his ear.  Lions stopped talking in midsentence, pulled out his communicator and buried his face in the screen.

“What’s going on,” Murray asked the room.

“Aircraft incident,” the short dandruff covered man answered without looking up.  “Out at Confluence.  The evacuation.  The 6th mobility squadron.  They lost their…  they lost…”  The man fumbled for words, and then fumbled his phone and dropped it under the table.  Another man let out a cough that sounded more like an attempt to stifle a sob.

Murray’s heart sank.  He asked, “Any word on the aircrew?  Are they okay?”  It was the Crown Prince who answered Murray’s question.

“Aircrews, and no they are not okay.  An entire squadron of Griffins, that’s six aircraft, they all just crashed with all hands aboard.”

Murray’s mouth got him in trouble again.

“Six aircraft?  Six aircraft don’t just all crash at the same time.”

“No,” The Crown Prince agreed.  “No, they don’t.”

----------------------------------------------------------------

Lions
For Lions, everything had been going swimmingly, and then all hell broke loose.  Not long after the Youngblood launched its drones into Gomorrah, Lions got the answers to two of the Chief Marshal’s most pressing questions.  But the euphoria of this good news was interrupted by the wholly unwelcome and unexpected news from Confluence.  Now, instead of dealing with priorities of the newfound situation in Gomorrah and that other issue, Lions and the Chief Marshal were being dragged into this Confluence distraction.

After the joint inquiry headed by Applegate fell apart, the Chief Marshal convened his own meeting.  This move was not desirable, but it was necessary.  Now Lions found himself seated in the Chief Marshal's personal conference room, at a table full of other Spartan power players and wannabe power players.  Absent from this meeting were both the Crown Prince and the commanding officer of Confluence, Colonel Brown Needles.  The Crown Prince was away at another meeting, a meeting that Lions arranged for the express purpose of keeping the prince away from this meeting.  Colonel Brown Needles, the twin brother of the Capital Guard commander Hendrick Brown, had departed Confluence ahead of his men and, to Lion’s dismay, wasn’t killed in the crash.  Lions arranged for Brown's aircraft to get diverted to Grant's Pass for a maintenance check, thus keeping that lizard-faced man out of the capital and out of this meeting.

At the head of the table sat Chief Marshal Gorman. As always, he was in full dress uniform and armed with an antique Mauser pistol.  A young briefer wearing an Operational Planner badge stood at the opposite end of the table and provided an overview of the situation for the benefit of the group.

“At the time of the incident, all six aircraft were fully loaded and had just lifted off.  It was then that a tornado struck the area.  All six aircraft were caught in the tornado and brought down with no survivors.

“Seizing the opportunity offered by the downed aircraft, a mob of local Gomorrah subjects attacked our facility.  They broke in, nearly overran the facility and set it on fire.  The remaining Spartans at Confluence were able to drive off this attack, although not without loses.  Presently, the situation on the ground at Confluence has stabilized, but we still have three Spartan’s unaccounted for:  Major Stuber, the executive officer at Confluence, Captain Hartshale, and a Sergeant Kimball.”

“And we’re sure none of them were on the aircraft?”  The Chief Marshal asked.

“They were not on the flight manifests, and survivors all spotted them after the crash.  All three actively participated in the defense.  Major Stuber led the defense…”

“Colonel Brown Needles was not at Confluence when all this happened.”  Lions interrupted.  “He left the day before, with his personal baggage and some… guests.”  Lion’s point was less to explain why this Major Stuber was running things than it was to point out that Brown Needles was not on the scene with his men when he was most needed.

“Guests?” A man at the table asked.

“I’d prefer not to expand upon that publicly,” Lions said, which was itself a lie.  He not only wanted to explain it publicly but did so by speaking a statement with the right amount of vagueness to make it his meaning perfectly clear.  Messing with the local women was taboo among the Spartans, and had ended many an officer’s career.  Now everybody in the room not only knew that Brown Needles was not at his post when needed most, but he was flying his Jillies home on Spartan aircraft.  Best of all, Brown Needles didn’t even know he’d been attacked.  He was going to arrive back in the Emerald City, utterly unaware of the knife sticking out of his back.  Lion’s words gave rise to disapproving grumbles.

In the pause following Lion’s point, a bearded man at the table spoke. This was Colonel Butler, the commander of all the numbered groups as well as the Long Range Group.  He was older, with bits of gray in his black beard; signs of experience rather than age.  He looked fit, and sharp, and competent.  He was also a Spartan Knight.  Butler was a sharp contrast to the Needles brothers, but he was too much of a maverick for Gorman’s tastes, who prized mechanical obedience over independent thought.  Lions respected and admired Butler.  He wondered how much easier things might be if he had men like Butler at his side rather than the lizard-faced Needles twins.  “Is there any possibility that the tornado and the ground attack were somehow linked?  That this wasn’t just a case of extremely good luck for our enemy?”

“Those Gomorrah peasants can control the weather now?”  Colonel Hendrick Needles said contemptuously, his lizard face stretched into a rictus of reptilian glee.  “Don’t be absurd.  The very idea is laughable.”  And several uniformed officers at the table did laugh.  The bearded man turned red, but he blushed out of anger, not from embarrassment at his own question.

The Chief Marshal dismissed the briefer.  After the door closed, a heavy silence hung in the air.  Lions looked over the faces of the assembled.  There sat long faced generals and admirals, the jowly Perry Applegate, other politicians whose countenances were vapid and self-important.  The silence eddied until the bearded man spoke up again.

“As per the general recall, I’ve got the Long Range Group, and Groups 1 and 2 back home in New Sparta and ready to deploy.  I can consolidate all three groups of Spartan Knights be en route to Confluence in a few hours.  Once there we can secure what’s left of the facility and mount a personnel recovery operation for our missing Spartans.”

Lions watched as heads around the table bobbed up and down like buoys in the ocean.  ‘These ignoramuses will agree to anything put before them,’ Lions said to himself.  ‘If only to save themselves from making a decision or burdening themselves with original thoughts.’  Another colonel promptly volunteered forces from the Southern Wall, and an admiral volunteered naval aviation assets as well.  The bandwagon was picking up members.  All around the table sidebar conversations broke out.  Men leaned over to the other men seated to their left and right and whispered into their ears.  Lions looked to the Chief Marshal.  Gorman’s face was tight, but he looked like he just might agree with Butler.  The attitude inside the conference room was taking on a life of its own, building in momentum and confidence. ‘I need to step in,’ Lions told himself.  And he did.

"Gentlemen," Lions began.  His voice was loud, confident, and authoritative.  The sidebar conversations and murmurs halted at once.  Lions stood up and leaned forward on the table to both draw attention to himself, and to look down on the rest of the room.  "Gentlemen, before we go haphazardly committing resources to this recovery effort in Confluence, let me remind you all of the broader situation.

“Colonel Butler has graciously offered us the use of his groups, but let’s not forget that one of his groups, 4th Group went unaccounted for over a month ago and was recently written off as dead.”

Butler’s face went as sour as a lemon. It was a cheap shot, Lions knew, but he had to take it.

“And Group 3 is still not back in the capital, as they have missions they have failed to complete before the recall.”  That was another cheap shot, but Lions felt he had to get control.  If saving Gorman and Gorman’s agenda meant sacrificing Butler, he’d do it.

“Even without Groups 3 and 4, the remaining groups are still quite a force,” a new voice broke in.  Lions saw it was Robert Murray, Applegate's latest lackey.  The murmurs started back up, spurred by this new consideration.

“I have no doubts about the capabilities of Butler’s knights,” Lions began. “As you all well know, I am a Spartan Knight myself.  But this isn’t about the fighting qualities of the individual Spartan.  This is about mathematics and about priorities.  What is the likelihood any of these three Spartans are still alive?  And even if they are alive, how great an area an area will we need to search before we find them? How much time will it take?   Confluence is nearly on the other side of the continent. How likely is it some mob of savages snatched them up?  If we mount a recovery operation, what is the probability of another aircraft mishap?  More casualties?  Does it make any sense to put hundreds of people at risk in the hopes of finding three… just three missing Spartans?”

“We always go after our people and bring them back,” Butler said.  “It is part of our code.”

“Is it?” Lions retorted.  “We say it is.  We tell our recruits it is.  It is easy to say such a thing in the ease of the training room.  Its much harder when faced with the cold and hard realities of the world, and right now we are facing those cold and hard realities.  These are the priorities I spoke of.

“Just before this disaster at Confluence, we discovered that a Gomorrah force still survives and has organized itself outside of The Bay.  That is what we need to focus on now.  That is the priority.  Are we going to take our eyes off Gomorrah, so we can bandy about the countryside looking for the bones of three dead Spartans?  After what they just suffered, the Gomorrah leadership is likely ready to negotiate, ready to come to terms.  We can finally negotiate a peace to this war that’s gone on for so long.  Would peace be worth the lives of just three Spartans, considering how many have sacrificed already?”

The murmurs were going again, but this time the winds in the conference table blew in Lion's favor.   He looked right at Butler, but the move was for dramatic effects upon the others in the room.  "If those three Spartans were asked to lay down their lives for lasting peace, don't you think they would do it?"   Lions didn't give Butler time to answer.  He addressed the larger group.

“Now is the time to remain focused, to avoid distractions and focus on the main effort.  The main effort is at The Bay, with us and the relationship we build with whatever is left down there. We need to focus on that.  We can’t expend our emotions, our energies, or our resources on three missing Spartans who in all likelihood are dead already.”

“Why…”  It was Robert Murray again.  His voice was quivering and tentative.  He was unsure of himself, and yet he was still interrupting. “Why can’t we do both simultaneously?”

It was a decent question, Lions thought. But it was one he’d already considered.  What’s more, Lions knew this was a game of pathos, not logos.

“A month ago, I’d say yes, Mr. Murray.  But look what’s happened recently.  The Bay was destroyed by a nuclear bomb that was stolen from our arsenal by one of our own knights.  An act that nobody foresaw.  And now, we’ve lost an entire squadron of aircraft.  Another act that nobody foresaw.  What’s next?  Might some new calamity befall us, and throw our efforts off track again?  If we open two lines of effort, won’t fate have double the chances of knocking us off track?  No. Now is the time to focus on a single goal and put everything to it.  And that goal is bringing about the final peace with Gomorrah that we have fought for years to achieve.  If that means three more Spartan’s must be sacrificed, then I say so be it.”

The men around the conference table began to murmur amongst themselves, nodding to themselves in agreement.  Murray shrunk back into his chair.  Colonel Butler stood stone still and seething.  It was done.  The room had turned in Lion's favor.  The missing Spartans at Confluence were on their own, and the Chief Marshal would have the latitude he needed to deal with whatever had survived down in The Bay.

Western militaries lived by the code of, “never leave a man behind.”  Lions had left behind three to satisfy his boss’s ambition.  An act made even more unfaithful given the fact that Lions was himself a Spartan Knight.  If the fates existed, then they were undoubtedly watching Colonel Lions that day, and they would take note of this betrayal.

After adjourning the meeting, the Chief Marshal asked Lions to stay behind.  When the room cleared, he said to his aide, “That was well played.  We were almost derailed.”

“Thank you, sir,” Lions replied.

“Who was the man who kept interrupting?”

“Robert Murray.  A minor politician who Senator Applegate recently brought under his wing.”

“Applegate needs to get him back under his wing.  We’ve no time for such outbursts and distractions.”

“Shall I speak to Senator Applegate?”

“No colonel,” Gorman said.  “He’s the head of the senate.  That’s a matter for me to handle.  I'll see to it.  Now, what can you tell me about The Bay?"

Lions produced the photo reconnaissance images taken from the Youngblood’s drone.  Gorman looked them over carefully.

“What’s this thing they’re building?”

“No idea,” Lions answered.  Then he pointed at a line of rectangles in the picture Gorman held.  “Those are armored personnel carriers.  Surplus stuff left over from a very, very long time ago.”

“Can they get them running?”

“Our motor transport officers think they can.  But there is something else, sir.  Something maybe just as important.  We’ve got a signal intercept from down in The Bay.  A high-frequency radio shot. Encrypted data.  I think we may have found somebody you’ve been looking for.”

Gorman’s face formed into a smug smile.  “Who else knows about that?”

“Nobody, sir.  I’ve kept that information close hold.  Very close hold.”

Gorman nodded agreement.  “Good.  Very good.  Keep it close hold.”

“What are your orders, Chief Marshal?”

“For now, Colonel Lions, we don’t take action on either one.  We’ll strike when conditions are right, but right now conditions are not right.  What I need now are more resources at my disposal… resources whom I can trust.  I don’t like Colonel Butler or his attitude.  The numbered groups are unreliable given that one just vanished.  And for all their loyalty, neither of the Needles twins can be trusted for their competence.  We’ve let our Motor City option sit on standby for too long.  Can we get that mission ready?”

“Yes, sir. We’re just waiting on the order to go,” Lions replied.

“Good.  You’ll command that mission, Colonel Lions.  I want you in the Motor City by tomorrow night.  As soon as you get back, we’ll take another look at The Bay.  After that, we’ll take care of The Colonel’s son.”

####################################­#########################

Welcome to the jungle we've got fun and games
We got everything you want honey, we know the names
We are the people that can find whatever you may need
If you got the money honey we got your disease

Guns N Roses, Welcome to the Jungle

---Chapter 13---

Lions

Long before The Protest, long before the Earth Mother offered salvation through child sacrifice, long before the war between New Sparta and Gomorrah, the Motor City was a shithole.  If anything, it was a bell weather, a canary in the coal mine, a precursor to what was come for the rest of the once-was United States of America. The economic and social policies taken on by the city and its leaders brought about stagnation, decline, decay, and finally chaos long before the High Council came into existence, before the political death squads in red and black sashes went around severing peoples' feet, and before squeezes appeared on All-American street corners.

Perhaps this early decline was why the Motor City evolved in ways the other great American cities did not.  Cities like The Bay and the Windy City became progressive utopia/nightmares.  Once they were overrun by the New Spartan counter-revolution, The Emerald City and the City of Roses became militarized encampments.  When essential services collapsed (or destroyed in the case of the City of Angles), other cities became unlivable.  The Motor City, on the other hand, was its own entity. It evolved into something contrary to both the New Spartan militarists and Gomorrah's protestors.  Given its early decline, the city attracted entrepreneurial criminals, bohemian free-spirits, scavenger-maker craftsmen, and hyper-violent libertarians when the Protest was still just an idea.  Old Detroit became something that was equal parts Wild West frontier town, East African pirate cove, and a prison where the inmates were also the guards, with a healthy measure of outlaw biker bar thrown in for good measure.  It orbited outside both New Sparta's and Gomorrah's spheres of influence and remained independent and chaotic.  If a man had high ambitions, low morals, and wanted nothing to do with either of the established powers of North American, they went to the Motor City.  That's why Lions found the city fascinating.  That's why Dishonored came here.

"Alright Colonel, you're wired up for sound and video.  There are two additional cameras built into the shoulders of your coat that face backwards, so we can literally watch your back.  If we see anything funny we'll let you know via your earbud, but I would still keep my back to a wall whenever possible.  The whole city plays by prison rules. If somebody wants to kill you, they aren't going to give you a chance to defend yourself."

Lions sat in the back of a panel van on one of the streets of the Motor City.  The interior of the van was set up for surveillance, just like in the movies.  Inside with Lions were a few spies and technicians from New Sparta's intelligence service.  Outside the van were several members of the Capital Guard, dressed in plainclothes rather than black and scarlet.  Further out, more Capital Guardsmen occupied abandoned buildings, waiting to come to the rescue if needed.  It was night.  Up the block, a party raged on the street outside a bar named The Green Dragon.

"Colonel, we have three platoons of quick reactions forces that can descend all over that bar in less than three minutes.  Anything goes wrong, if you think somebody is about to spill the soup, use your distress words and we'll send in the cavalry."

Lions looked at the man briefing him.  He was a hardened intelligence operative with over a decade of experience in the Motor City.  Tattoos and brandings covered his exposed skin: the hands, neck and face.  "Will anybody be in there with me?"

"Yes, sir, but I'd rather not say who they are or what they look like. When you go in there you might start looking for them and that could tip off the target.  As you well know, he's trained."

"Trained by the best," Lions agreed.  "If things go south, how will I tell the good guys from the bad guys?"

"If things go bad, just hit the deck and we'll come and get you."

"What if I have to shoot somebody?"

"In the Green Dragon?  If you have to shoot somebody, then shoot everybody.  It's Vlain's territory.  We'll sort out the rest when the smoke clears."

Lions donned the sound and video wired leather trench coat over his body armor.  The trench coat was thick and well made, with real leather over what was probably ballistic nylon.  Lions guessed the coat alone was more than enough to stop a knife slash or the bullet from a pistol.  Before him were two large handguns and a small revolver.  One pistol went into a holster on his hip, the second went into the small of his back.  The revolver he tucked into his back pocket.  To this arsenal, he added a pair of stilettos, two concussion grenades which he slipped into his coat pockets, a fragmentation grenade that went his belt, and spare magazines.  Next, he clipped a machine pistol into the sling across his chest and chambered a round. Finally, he dropped two more items into the deep pockets of the coat.  The first was a rolled-up piece of paper.  The second was a small plastic flask.

"The audio you record, what do you do with it?" Lions asked the technicians.

"We'll give one copy of it to you, then delete all the rest."

"Good.  See that you do."

Lions made one last check of all his gear.  As he did, the master spy and one of the technicians talked.

"What are you gonna do when you get back to the Emerald City?"

"First thing I'm gonna do is remove all these stupid tattoos from my face."

#

Lions climbed out of the van.  The door shut behind him and Lions looked up the street.  A block away was the raucous bar.  The sign above it was done in neon that flashed brightly. The sign's brilliant letters announced, "The Green Dragon," and below it was a depiction of a Chinese Dragon in dazzling green neon lights.  Somebody had rigged a propane torch to the dragon's mouth.  Periodically it would breathe a great ball of orange fire that would roar and roll up into the sky.

Outside the bar, a trio of bikers roared down the street on motorcycles cobbled together from scrap.  Both bikes and bikers had a distinct flair of medieval.  A woman called out.  She offered her services.  Lions ignored her and entered the bar.

The inside of the Green Dragon was just as Lions expected: equal parts Wild West saloon and biker bar.  There was an open central area filled with tables, and a bar ran along one side.  Rough looking customers lined the bar, and at the far end, a boy with a broad flat forehead and mismatched and misshaped eyes wiped the floor with a filthy rag.  A staircase led to the second story.  There, leaning against the balcony, a selection of prostitutes lingered.  The interior was lit from a mix of electric lights, sputtering torches, and an elaborate chandelier of ironwork salvaged out of the city's ruins.  One wall was taken up by a giant mural of a green dragon wreaking havoc and holding a trio of naked women in one claw.  The women had cartoonish proportions.

Lions saw who he was looking for at the back of the bar, seated at the head of a circular table and playing cards.  He was a man, bearded and lean but muscular.  He wore a set of coveralls with the sleeves cut off.  These coveralls were in the nothing-color of dust; maybe grey, maybe green, maybe brown. A dozen thugs surrounded the table.  They all carried melee’ weapons.  The thugs had guns too, to be sure.  They carried pistols and cut down shotguns and a few halfway decent rifles. But all of them also carried melee' weapons, and Lyons knew why. Ammunition was in short supply out here in the wastelands, even here in the Motor City which had a decent craft industry.  Nobody manufactured ammunition outside of New Sparta to any significant degree.  These were violent men, but violent or not, they had to use their ammunition sparingly.  No sense in using a bullet when a knife or a lead-weighted cudgel could do the job.

Weapons weren't the only thing they carried.  All of them also wore scars, self-inflicted scars.  On each freebooter's face were a pair of vertical scars that started at their brows and ran down to each eye socket.  Skipping over the eyes the vertical scars all continued down their cheeks to the jawline.  The scars had been cut ritualistically and raised by some other ritual into thick, waxy white lines, like huge, flat nightcrawlers. These grisly scars were the gangs’ sigil, along with their pale eyes.  Each set of eyes around the table were devoid of anything put the slightest trace of color.  Cataract pale eyes all around.  This gang of bad men called themselves the Unforgiven. The man Lions knew as their leader mused over his cards.  Slowly and carefully, Lions made his way to the circular table in the back where his quarry waited.  

“How much to buy into the game?” Lions asked.  The leader didn't deign to look up from his hand.

“You want to turn a profit, go upstairs with the other whores.  That, or get under this table and suck me off.”

Most of the scarred felons laughed.  One, a massive man of apparent Samoan descent shifted uneasily, not laughing at all.  This one's dark-skinned paws moved to an oak cudgel in his belt. Lyons ignored the insult.  

“Maybe this is enough of an ante," Lions said.  He reached into his pocket, pulled out a spare magazine for the machine pistol, and casually tossed it into the pot.  It landed in the pile of treasure with a heavy clunk.

That got the tattooed man’s attention.  

Slowly, but without looking up at Lions, the man reached into the pot with both hands and lifted up the magazine by pressing a single finger on each of its ends.  He brought the magazine up to his milky eyes and admired it for a few seconds.  The magazine was made of semitransparent plastic, tinted a smoky grey.  Lions detected nostalgia in the man's admiring. Finally, the man spoke.

“I haven’t seen one of these in a long time.”  Then the leader looked up at Lions with his pale eyes and asked, "What news from Rome?"

"Good to see you again, Captain Rodrigo Vlain," Lions said.  But the man with the magazine shook his head no.

"Not Captain Vlain no more.  There ain't no captain, ain't no Vlain and ain't no Rodrigo neither. So there sure as shit ain't no Captain Rodrigo Vlain.  All those names and titles and honorifics went away the day you brass men stripped me of my bars, my commission, and my uniform, paraded me past two battalions of Spartan infantrymen at attention, and cast me out of New Sparta forever.  But you did let me keep this."  And the man Lions called Vlain unzipped his coveralls partway and shrugged out one shoulder.  There on the shoulder blade, tattooed in blue ink, was the crossed swords emblem of a Spartan Knight.

"Captain Rodrigo Vlain is dead.  Now… now I'm, 'Dishonored.'"

"I think we had good reason to cast you out," Lions replied.  There was etiquette to this, a certain prison-yard pageantry.  In some cases, there was give and take.  In other cases, you needed to stand firm on the ground you held, lest you appear weak and ripe for exploitation.

"Of course you had reasons," Dishonored said.  "You brass men always have your reasons.  Now you're here, in my bar, with your fancy ass weapons and probably the entire Long Range Group outside the door ready to bust in.  I bet you got a reason for that too."

"There is," Lions allowed.  

"This reason got anything to do with a big ass bomb?  I asked you, 'what news from Rome?' brass man.  Word around the campfire is, you had some inventory control issues. Some Spartan Knight just up and stole a nuke.  Then, this Spartan Knight walked that nuke right into The Bay, and… blew it the fuck up."  As he said this, Dishonored stabbing into the air with the magazine.  Lions chose not to address this at all.

"We could use your help with something, Vlain."

At this slight, the big Samoan moved directly behind Dishonored and drew his club.  Lions guessed if he fired into the bodyguard's center mass, the big guy could absorb quite a few rounds from the machine pistol before dropping.  Other members of the Unforgiven shifted too, drawing weapons, circling around Lion's flanks.  Dishonored made a placating gesture with his hands.

"Told you, Captain Vlain is gone.  New life, new name to go with it.  I'm Dishonored.  These folks around me, my compatriots, they are the Unforgiven.  So, how about you stop calling me captain, like you still have some authority over me, colonel.  In return, I'll let you have a seat, and we can talk like officers and gentlemen, just like we're back in the Emerald City."  With that, Dishonored made a dismissive gesture with a single finger.  The man across the table gave up his seat.  Lions sat down. The ex-Spartan Knight seemed to be in a talking mood and Lions didn't see any point in beating around the bush.

"You heard of Doctor Chosen's map?"

Dishonored first stiffened. The muscles in his neck, jaw, and face went tight as piano wires.  A second or two later, the disfigured and disgraced Spartan Knight forced himself to relax.

"Everybody's heard of that map.  The map to all of the good doctor's secret labs, spread across the country, hidden in underground bunkers and such.  The map is one of those things, you don't know if you should believe it or not.  Believable enough to be true, but ain't nobody ever seen it, like all urban legends.  Its always, 'my friend has a cousin who knows a guy who saw the map on the Crown Prince's wall,' kinda shit.  Bullshit kinda shit."

"It ain't bullshit," Lions replied.  "We have a copy of the map.  It checks out.  Now that Doctor Chosen is gone we need somebody to start hitting up all these labs and seeing what's in there."

"Yeah," Dishonored said, puffing out the word like it was a ring of cigarette smoke.  "Ain't you got a whole group of Spartan Knights set aside to do stuff just like that.?"

"We feel that…"

"Don't give me that 'we feel' shit," Dishonored said coldly.  "I know exactly who wants Doctor Chosen's science stuff and why.  This came from the Chief Marshal."  Dishonored leaned back in his chair before continuing.

"Nobody knows how old Doctor Chosen was when he died.  They only know he was old.  He was old when the protest started, old when The Hammer was running all over California, wrecking cities and killing every protestor within rifle shot.  If he was old then, that means he was ancient when he died.  Only everybody said he didn't look that old.  He looked maybe, sixty.  But he had to be over a hundred.  Maybe over two hundred.  Either way, that crazy doctor found some way to cheat old age.

"Every king and emperor gets old and dies.  Don't matter how much power they got here on Earth; eventually the years take them… unless the years don't take them.  Your Chief Marshal, he's got the power.  So maybe he don't want to get old and give up his power?  Me?  I think your Chief Marshal wants to live forever.  He thinks Doctor Chosen found a secret for that.  Only, the Chief Marshal doesn't want the rest of New Sparta knowing what he's up to.  If he's gt a fountain of youth, all the other brass men are gonna want to take a drink too.  That’s why he isn't using the Long Range Group for a job like this.  So, now you’re here to send me and mine out to go find that secret for you."

"You in or not?"

"I'm gonna want something more than a magazine," Dishonored said.  He paused, then asked, "Is this where you invite me back into New Sparta?  Reinstate me as a captain and a knight again."

"No," Lions said flatly.  "You're never coming back to New Sparta."  Dishonored laughed.

"Well, at least you're honest about that."

Another pause hung between the two.  Lions asked, "What happened to your eyes.  They used to be blue.”

“Used to be,” Dishonored answered.  

“So, what happened?”

Dishonored gave a loud sniff, followed by a snort of a laugh, then another sniff.

"Drops, drops of Shake," Dishonored explained.  Then he went into the singsong of a poem.  "Shake. Ask her no questions, she'll tell you no lies, but she will steal the color right out of your eyes."

The singsong stopped and Dishonored continued.  "You can dry it out and sniff it, but after a while, that don't do it for you no more.  Better high if you leave it wet and drop it into your eyeballs. You eye drop it 'do, you start losing color.  Better high, higher price."

Lions face turned up.  Dishonored read the contempt in Lion's face and laughed at it.  "Things are different outside the Emerald City, Mr. brass man.  Folks ain’t so uptight about their recreation."  The men around Dishonored laughed, all except the big Samoan.  Lions saw that man was switched on, his club in his hand, ready to come across the table in an instant.

Dishonored continued.  "So, we're agreed on no pardons.  What are you gonna give us?"  Lions picked up on use of the word us rather than me.

"We'll outfit you with everything you need for the job and more.  Guns, ammo, vehicles, fuel, rations.  We'll give you all the supplies you need to raid every one of these labs and still have enough left over to build your own army after."

"How can we trust you to pay up?"  This came from the Samoan man at Dishonored side.  Lions looked him up and down again.  Lions was certain that if the big man had his druthers, he'd forget about the deal, come across the table and bash in Lion's head with that oak warclub.

"Chamo makes a fair point," Dishonored said.  "How can we trust you to hold up your end of the deal?  You and the other Emerald City brass men already fucked me over once."

Lions came off the top ropes with his answer.

"One, we didn't fuck you over.  You fucked yourself over when you decided to rape and torture and murder prisoners, to include kids.  Two, you said it yourself, what material price can you put on immortality?  A few truckloads of supplies are nothing to a man who can live forever.  And three," Lions reached into his pocket, pulled out the plastic flask and tossed it into the pot where the magazine landed.  The flask was only dull plastic, but it and the chew-spit colored fluid inside glittered to Dishonored and his Unforgiven like gold.

"Three, we give you as much of this as you can handle."

Dishonored looked at Lions with his milky white eyes for just a moment, then greedily snatched the flask off the pile.  The flask was designed to dispense drops out of the tip.  Dishonored popped the top, leaned back in his chair, and squeezed drops of the dirty brown looking chew-spit liquid called Shake into his eyes.  Only a moment passed before the effects of the Shake hit.  Dishonored clutched the edge of the table with one hand, knuckles white.  With the other hand he pounded the table top, once twice, a third time.  His face went bright with drug-induced euphoria and confidence.

"Fuck boys.  Fuck," Dishonored said jubilantly.  Cocking his head to one side, he spoke loudly to his men.  “That's it right there boys.  Factory made.  Shit, that's good!

"The brass men got work to do, and they don’t want to dirty their uniforms or tarnish their bling getting it done.  Looks like we got a deal, boys.”

The thugs and felons known as the Unforgiven let out whoops and hollers.  Dishonored threw the plastic flask of Shake over his shoulder, and his fighters all scrambled for it.  All except the big Chamo, who never took his eyes off Lions.

"We have a deal then?" Lions asked.

"Yes, we have a deal," Dishonored replied.  Behind him, the men were already filling their eyes with drops of Shake.  Lions reached into his pocket and pulled out the rolled up piece of paper.  That went into the pile too.

"What's that?" Dishonored asked.

"The map, or at least the first part of it. Like I said, it wasn't bullshit."

High or not, Dishonored eyed the map carefully, but did not touch it.  It was like he did not want to touch it, and, truth be told, he didn't.  Afterwards, when Lions replayed the scene in his head, he would remember that Dishonored never touched the map.

Dishonored pointed to Lion's coat.

"Let me see that sub-gun of yours."

"No.  What the hell for?"

"I ain't gonna shoot you with it, if that's what you're worried about.  Not over one deal of Shake when more's just up the road."

"Then what do you want the gun for?"

"Call it nostalgia.  Or call it a down payment.   Hand it over."

Grudgingly, Lions unclipped the weapon from the sling.  Chamo shifted uneasily again.  Lions removed the magazine, pocketed it, ejected the round in the chamber, then cleared the weapon before handing it over to Dishonored.  Dishonored let out a mocking chuckle when Lions checked the chamber, a chuckle his cronies picked up on and imitated.

Dishonored laid the weapon on the table, said to Lions, "I want to see if I still got it in me," and then closed his sickly pale eyes.

The feeble boy at the bar dipped his rag in a bucket of dirty water.  It made a slopping sound.

Dishonored took a deep breath.  Then, eyes shut tight, he began disassembling the machine pistol.  The fingers worked expertly, moving quickly and efficiently, stripping the machine pistol down to its component parts.  In half a minute the weapon was completely stripped.  Dishonored opened his eyes, smiled, and made a voila' motion with his hands.  Then he closed his eyes again, reassembled the weapon just as expertly as he disassembled it, and finally performed a function check.  When he dry-fired the weapon, it made a satisfying click.  Dishonored placed the gun back on the table and opened his eyes.

"What was all that about?" Lions asked.  Dishonored smiled, a sly and conniving smile

"I just wanted to let you know that I haven't changed, brass man."  Then, quick as a striking snake, Dishonored snatched the pistol off the table, loaded it with the magazine Lions tossed out earlier, chambered a round and swung it over on the feeble boy cleaning the floor at the end of the bar, and fired once.  The whole action took less than two full seconds.  The top of the boy's irregular head came straight off.  His dead body slammed into the bar and ricocheted off, leaving a smear of blood where it hit.  The Unforgiven let out raucous roars of laughter and great guffaws.

Lion's face dropped at the sight of the murder.

"Like I just told you, brass man, I haven't changed."

#

"I don't like it, bossa-man.  You know you can't trust them.  You oughta know that more than anybody.  They are gonna fuck us over.  And they ain't gonna do it gentle-like," the bodyguard named Chamo said this to Dishonored after the Spartan colonel left.  The other members of the Unforgiven had quieted down after the effects of the Shake wore off.  The feeble boy's body still lay on the barroom floor, ignored as if he never existed at all.

"I know that Chamo," Dishonored replied.  "That brass man and his Chief Marshal boss will fuck us over. But they won't fuck us over before they get what they want.  They want Doctor Chosen's secrets.  That Chief Marshal man likes the idea of living forever, or at least living another hundred years or so. Either way, until they get what they want, they won't fuck us over.  In the meantime, we'll get some loot and some gadgetry weapons."

"But eventually, they will fuck us over."

"That's right, Chamo."

"And there probably ain't no way of predicting exactly when that is?  The brass men might get what they think is enough, and then just cut us off at the knees right there."

"Yup."

"Or," Chamo continued.  "They might find some other crew.  Have us get half of Doctor Chosen's look, stab us in the back, then put this new crew to work."

"That is also a very real possibility," Dishonor agreed.  Dishonored liked Chamo.  The man was big, but he was no dummy.  He'd seen people underestimate Chamo's intelligence and come out on the wrong side after.  That's why Dishonored made Chamo his second in command.

"So, if we know they are going to fuck us over, why agree at all?  No fancy rifles or trucks are worth dying for.  And, they screwed you over once already.  I'd think the last thing you'd want to do would be work for the same people who fired your butt."

Dishonored leaned back and smiled.  The Shake was wearing off.  He'd have liked another flask, but his men had gone through it all.  That being said, he was feeling mellow and glad for this moment of clarity.

"Chamo, remember that book I used to read to you?  The one about the war, back in olden times?"

"Yeah.  With them real Spartans.  The history of the... whatever it was."

"History of the Peloponnesian War.  Remember that part I read.  The part where the big bosses were going after those little guys.  The big bosses told them, 'either surrender and join with us, or we go to war and take you over.' Remember what the little guys said?"

Chamo mused for a moment, then answered.  "Yeah, the little guys said that a slim chance is still a chance, and that anything is possible once a war starts.  That the big bosses might have been big and had a bigger army, but that didn't mean they were going to win.  In a fight like that, ain't no guarantee how things will turn out.  Anything is possible."

"Right. Anything is possible," agreed Dishonored.  "So, New Spartan cast me out.  Now these brass men want to put me back to work.  They think some trucks and a few cases of ammo are going to make me forget what they did to me.  And they think I don't know they will break this deal first chance they get.

"But I know they are going to screw us.  And I ain't forgotten or forgiven what they did to me.  So maybe as all this plays out, we get a chance to screw them over.  Maybe they get so lustful for Doctor Chosen's secrets that they make a slip.  Maybe I find a way to get my revenge when they aren't expecting it.  Stick the knife in their guts for a change and twist it around some."

Chamo mused some more.  "Sounds dangerous."

"It will be," Dishonored agreed.

"They probably weren't going to take no for an answer either."

Dishonored agreed.  "You know what a Morning Star strike could do to a place like this?"

"Nope."

"You don't want to know either," Dishonored said.

Chamo mused again before asking, "So what happened to those little guys?"

"The Melians?  The big guys took them over.  All the men were killed, and the women and children were turned into slaves."

Chamo thought on that, then said sardonically, "that don't inspire much in the way of confidence."

Dishonored shrugged that off.

"Ain't nobody who can predict how these things will turn out.  Anything is possible.  Sometimes even the little guys win."

If it keeps on rainin' levee's goin' to break
If it keeps on rainin' levee's goin' to break
When the levee breaks I'll have no place to stay

Led Zeppelin, When the Levee Breaks

Chapter 14

Colt

Life in the tunnel continued with its routine monotony.  The young Spartan Knights did what they did every day.  They ate.  They slept.  They worked out as best they could.  They would nap and wake up and eat more rations and take another nap.  They broke out gear and weapons to clean clean and check for the hundredth time.  One the rare occasions Lefranc slept, one or two would stand guard at the entrance.  Occasionally, Robins studied one of several books he secreted in his pack, and Doc poured over a small medical handbook made especially for use in the field.  Ajax didn't read.  He only worked out.  Colt brooded quietly.

The only one who attempted to break the monotony was Christian.  When the tunnel seemed to be in the deepest depths of the doldrums, Christian would leap to his feet and start shucking and jiving, singing and performing ridiculous karate moves, like some militarized Elvis Impersonator.  Other times, Christian would announce loudly he was going to, "recon down the tunnel," and then disappear into the tunnel's darkness.  The other team members assumed this was code for, "go and masturbate."  After a year together in the Knights Course, Christian's proclivity for that activity was well known.  But before long, Christian was performing tunnel recons six times a day.  The others speculated in whispers whether Christian was doing what they first thought he was doing, or whether this was some ploy by the grenadier to spread rumors and somehow boost the team's morale.  Doc, who was the sole medical authority in the group, said that even a healthy young male couldn't consistently perform with Christian's frequency.  As a counter, Ajax offered that, "Christian may be dead-on with that grenade launcher, but his brain doesn't work like the rest of ours do.  Maybe his whacker doesn't either."  That seemed to settle the matter.

Throughout all this, Colt dwelled on his predicament; the predicament that was started by his father, passed on to him, and via the principal of guilt by association, now enveloped his friends and condemned them to a captive's existence deep in a tunnel in the middle of nowhere.  This guilt preoccupied Colt's mind and made it difficult for him to sleep.  Naturally, one night he awoke to the pale light of the moon washing into the tunnel.  Lefranc sat in the mouth of the tunnel, cross legged and facing out into world, silhouetted by the light.  He was stripped to the waist, with his sniper rifle and hand axe across his lap.

Colt took up his carbine and approached the sniper.  As he approached, the moonlight revealed a crisscrossing of ink lines and images that filled the length and breadth of the Master Gunnery Sergeant's back.  The tattoo artwork was a testimony of Lefranc's military career.  Colt saw the crossed tomahawks of a Spartan Ranger; the crossed tomahawk and ice axe of a Spartan Mountain Ranger; a pair of sniper rifles crossed over a boar spear; the skeletal dragoon mascot of the Long Range Group; a trident crossed over a naval boarding pike, with a sniper rifle running down the middle for good measure; parachute wings over crossed axes; "Grants Pass" written in an olde English font over what looked like a flame thrower; a single black arrow.  In the center of this mural were the crossed sword emblem of a Knight of New Sparta.

"See anybody out there," Colt asked.  Lefranc scooted to his left, making room for the younger man.

"Just rabbits so far.  Ain't seen any people, but ain't looking for any either."

"Then what are you looking for?" Colt asked, sitting down and laying his carbine across his lap just like the older man had.

"I'll tell you when I see it," Lefranc answered.

Colt frowned.  "Eventually you're going to have to give us some answers as to what the hell is going on.  We might all be rookies in your eyes, but we're still Spartan Knights.  And we're neck deep in whatever the hell is going on here."

With a flick of his thumb, Lefranc popped the locking lug on his rifle's bolt.  He slid the bolt out of the rifle's receiver and an instant later he was wiping the metal piece down with an old red bandana.

"What did you want to be when you grew up?  When you were little I mean?" Lefranc asked.  Colt scowled in disgust at the question, but Lefranc placated him quickly.  "I'm an old man.  Humor me."

"I never really thought about it.  My father was 'The Colonel,' Spartan Knight and commander, hero of New Platea.  A warrior so terrible even generals referred to him only by his rank.  My great grandfather was The Hammer, another badass; one of our founders, hero of the counter protest.  He destroyed the city they used to call Los Angeles.  So no, I never thought about what I wanted to be when I grew up.  That I was going to be a Spartan Knight was a given.  The idea I'd do something else wasn't even entertained.  When your family tree has roots like those, you don't think about what your going to be when you grow up, you just hope you live up to the legacy laid out before you."

"A tall shadow to live under," Lefranc mused.  Colt grunted in agreement.

"And there was a war still going on too," Lefranc offered.  "Hard to not be a Spartan Knight when there is a war going on."

"Yes," Colt agreed.

The moments ticked away.  The moon cast its light.  A coyote howled.

"You ever think maybe your father didn’t want you to be a Spartan Knight," Lefranc asked, this time looking Colt right in the eyes.  Colt's answered with the blank expression on his face.  Such an idea never crossed his mind.  Lefranc continued.

"Your dad didn't do what he did just to put the hurt on Gomorrah and the High Council.  Your dad did what he did because he didn't want you to go off and fight the same war that your great grandfather started.  Not you, not any of your friends, not any of the other kids back  in New Sparta.  He knew New Sparta had the ability to crush Gomorrah, but that nobody in charge wanted to go and do what needed to be done.  That's why he made a play to be the Chief Marshal.  But his competition for that post was Gorman.  Gorman was never a field commander, but he was well connected and well liked back in the Emerald City.  Gorman was seen as a polished sophisticate.  Your father was seen as a brute.  Gorman was seen as a technologically savvy, intellectual warrior.  Your father was seen as a knuckle dragging grunt.  The elites of New Sparta decided that contest before it even got underway.

"And so, your dad went out on his Last March, only he brought along a little surprise in the bargain.  Looks like he got the whole High Council with one shot.  Only…"

"Only…" Colt picked up where Lefranc trailed off.  "Only not everybody wanted the war to end, or at least they didn't want the war to end on those terms.  They were pissed off at my dad and wanted revenge.  It is hard to court martial a man who was disintegrated in a nuclear blast though, so now they're going after me.  Punish the son for the sins of the father."

"I think they got something more in mind than a court martial," Lefranc said.  "Chief Marshal Gorman's always had a hard-on for your dad for having the audacity to run against him.  He had ambitious plans to boot.  Plans that were derailed by your dad's final act."

"Okay, I got all that," Colt said.  He turned and pointed back down the tunnel where the others slept.  "But what about them?  If the idea is to not condemn the son for the sins of the father, then why did we just condemn all of them?  The Colonel wasn't their dad.  This isn't their fight.  Why drag all them into this?  They had dreams and ambitions too.  They had lives they wanted to live that didn't include hanging out in some unfinished tunnel in the middle of nowhere."

"You think you can take on Chief Marshal Gorman alone?" Lefranc asked, the skepticism evident in his face.

"I don't want them punished for what I did, or what my dad did.  That's not right that they should be drug into this."

"Right and wrong don't factor into the calculus of men like the Chief Marshal," Lefranc said.  "Your friends could just as easily be disappeared simply for the crime of knowing you.  The Chief Marshal?  He isn't unique in human history.  The moves he's likely to make?  Those moves have all been made before.  Best thing we can do is anticipate what he's going to do and stay one step ahead of him.  Besides, how long have you and your team mates been together?"

"One-year.  The Knights Course is one year.  You know that."

"Major K kick your ass during that whole year?"

"You know he did."

"Right.  So, one year of hardship, misery, and flat-out getting-your-ass-beat training?"

"You know all this.  You got the tattoo all over your back."

Lefranc nodded.  "After that year of getting your nuts kicked in together, would you ever sell any of your friends out?"

Colt snarled with disgust.  "You know I wouldn't.  Not after what we've been through together.  I'd…"

Lefranc cut in.  "You think they'd sell you out?"

That stopped Colt short.  He never thought about that.  He turned and looked back into the tunnels.  The lumps of sleeping men were just visible in the darkness.  'No,' he thought.  They went through everything that I went through.  The same mud and blood and pain.  The bonds between them, forged by Major K's unrelenting training would not be broken, not by the bureaucrats and suits and dandies of the Emerald City.  No, he wouldn't sell them out to the Chief Marshal.  He'd die for his friends.  And now that he reflected on it, he was sure that Doc, Ajax and Christian would die for him, if that was what it took.

"The Crown Prince put you all in this meatgrinder together because he knew, no matter what, you'd all stick together.  That you could trust each other.  That you'll work together against anything the Chief Marshal throws at you," Lefranc said.

But there was an extra lump amongst the others.  Robins.

"What's his story then?  He wasn't with us at the Knights Course.  I never saw him before he climbed in the Griffin that picked you up."

"Me either.  I don't know who he is."

"Why is he here then?  Why send an unknown, one-armed clerk out into the badlands of Gomorrah to play hide-and-go-seek against the Chief Marshal?" Colt asked.

Lefranc could only shake his head before answering.  "I don't know.  I can only assume the Crown Prince had his reasons."

The moments passed.  The moon and stars made their orbits.  A rabbit bounded across the valley.  Lefranc asked, "What are they giving up?"

"Huh?"

"You said they had dreams and aspirations too.  What are they giving up by being here with you?"

Colt turned again and looked at his sleeping companions.  When he spoke, he kept looking at them.

"Doc is smart and ambitious, and competitive.  He wants to be a doctor, a real doctor, after a tour as a Spartan Knight.  He figures by earning his crossed swords he'll get a leg up on the competition.

"Ajax came from a big family, something like a thousand brothers and sisters.  He wants a family too.  He's a good soldier, loves grunting around.  But he also wants that good ole dream; fall in love, get married, shit-load of kids running around.  Maybe there is some tension there; the conflict between wanting to be a soldier and wanting to be a husband and father.  I don't know.  I'll guess he'll find out someday… hopefully."

"What about the grenadier?"  Lefranc asked.

Colt snorted.  "Christian?  He's crazier than a shit-house rat.  Career corporal type.  If he were to just run and gun for the rest of his life, he couldn't be happier.  Great soldier.  He never complains.  He never shirks anything.  He volunteers for everything. He's switched on all the time.  He went to the Knights Course so he could get into one of the numbered groups or the Long Range Group and just spend his whole career in the field.  The worse thing that could happened for him is world peace.  His dream?  He's probably living it right here in this tunnel."

"Sounds like a good crew," Lefranc said.

"They are," Colt agreed.

Another comfortable silence passed.  Then Colt asked, "Did you know my father?"

Lefranc shook his head no.  "I did not know him, but I knew of him.  I suppose we all do."

"How did you know the Crown Prince?  He must trust you if he gave you this mission."

Lefranc leaned forward and blinked his eyes a few times before answering.

"After the he squired for your father and completed the Knight’s Course, the Crown Prince’s first assignment was to the Long Range Group.  Figured that was the best way to see old America.  Back then the Long Range Group was cavaliering all over the country, making trouble for Gomorrah, scrounging about the ruins of the United States.  Royal sons fight as rankers, so he was assigned as the assistant gunner on my gun truck.

"Our first assignment was to head into Texas. The barons there were in revolt again.  Usually when the barons revolted the High Council was able to put a stop to it easily enough. They'd play rival lords off against each other.  But this time the uprising was gaining traction.  You heard of the Peaceful Army?"

"I have," Colt answered.  "The Peaceful army was the last real army Gomorrah even put in the field.  Something that approached a real army.  Their sigil was a hybrid made from the peace symbol and the biohazard flash.  Their weapons of choice were chemical weapons."

"Right," Lefranc answered. "The Peaceful Army was moving through west Texas.  They had some new chemical weapon, a real nasty thing probably designed by Doctor Chosen himself.  They were sliming everything in their path and laying the land to waste.  The Long Range Group was sent in, to stop the Peaceful Army and get the Texas rebellion going.  We were also sent in to recover an artifact.  Have you ever been in the Crown Prince’s office?"

"No," Colt answered.

"The Place is a mess, a cluttered mess," Lefranc answered.  "A real dump.  They even keep him in the basement, like he’s some adjunct college professor or something. It’s all old papers and dusty books. The Chief Marshal’s office is like a museum from what I’ve heard.  Anyway, the Crown Prince has one nice artifact in his office.  It’s mounted on the wall behind his desk, under glass."

"What is it?"

Lefranc brushed aside Colt’s question with a wave of his hand, as if to say, 'I'll tell you that one later.'  The bearded old sniper continued with the story he was already on.  "We inserted somewhere in the Midwest and drove south into Texas.  Before we knew it, we were face to face with the Peaceful Army.  One hundred and twenty seven men of the Long Range Group nose-to-nose with ten thousand of Gomorrah’s finest and their poisoned goo."

"What happened?"

Lefranc cursed.  "Fuckin' shitshow is what happened.  We ended up right inside them, in the center of them, right smackdab in their cantonment area and their command post.  Started calling in Morning Star strikes on our own position.  Lieutenant Colonel Kelly was running the group then.  Kelly wasn't like your dad, but he wasn’t a slouch neither.  He played it right along the razor’s edge that day.  When it was all over we were an island of the living in an ocean of the dead.  The Peaceful Army was destroyed."

"What about the Texas revolt?"

Lefrance spat out of the tunnel and into the night, his disgust clear.  "It fizzled out.  Once the Peaceful Army was destroyed, the barons figured they had the maneuver space to go after one another; they were fighting for scraps instead of going for the real prize of independence.  Gomorrah played rivals barons against each other, as always, and when the dust settled they had a High Council appointed Proconsul established in Austin, and a tighter hold on Texas than ever before…"

Lefranc’s voice trailed off.  It picked back up again and when it did, it was filled by no small amount of sweet nostalgia.

"The rebellion failed, but we brought down the Peaceful Army.  Me, Kelly, the Crown Prince… We brought hell down on those bastards."

Colt saw Lefranc do something he didn’t do often.  The old man smiled.  He smiled, at the good times long past. Lefranc looked genuinely happy, and Colt thought this old warrior wasn’t happy often enough.

Colt asked, "Good times?"

"Yeah, tough times, but good times.  All those times in the field were good times," Lefranc said.  Then he leaned over and patted Colt on the shoulder.  "I only got one more left in me kid.  Whatever happens, let's make this a good one too."

Now Colt smiled.

Outside the tunnel, in the night sky, came a puttering, motorized sound from above.  The smile vanished from Lefranc’s face.  He instinctively put the bolt back into his rifle and loaded it.  The sound got louder.  It sounded like a lawn mower running somewhere high above them.

"What is that," Colt asked.

"Drone," Lefranc answered.  "It’s a drone.  An old one.  Pre-protest model.

"Looks like the Chief Marshal's finally found us."


Lions

Lions returned to the Emerald City in the dead of night.  When he landed, he found a car waiting for him on the tarmac.  Two Capital Guardsmen, each wearing armor and carrying submachine guns, stood waiting and whisked Lions into the car.  Together they sped through the darkened streets of the Emerald City, which seemed nearly deserted given the late (or perhaps early) hour.  Neither guardsman spoke the entire trip.

The car arrived at the top of a parking structure that overlooked a building that was once home to one of the city's two major newspapers.  This was of course back in the pre-protest times; the once-was-America times.  Lions exited the car, and more Capital Guardsmen searched him and relieved him of the arsenal he brought back from the Motor City.  Security in the Emerald City was tightening.  The top of the parking structure was empty except for a panel van parked in one corner.  The roof of the panel van was littered with antenna.  Two guardsmen escorted Lions to the van.  He entered and found several technicians, General Greylick, and the Chief Marshal inside.

"How did it go," Gorman asked.

"Sir, we got what we wanted," Lions answered proudly.  Gorman nodded once and asked no more on that subject.

The interior of the van was illuminated by a soft blue-green light.  When Lion's eyes adjusted, he found himself looking at the live-feed of a drone.  It was flying over some desert.  The downward angle of the camera showed scrub brush and a flat, dirty country passing by in a black-and-white spectrum representing heat.

"Central Valley," General Greylick explained.  "You came just in time.  The drone's just a few minutes out."

"What's the platform?" Lions asked.

"A pre-protest model.  One that is off the books and won't be missed."

"Payload?"

"A couple of Hellfires," Greylick answered.  "Also, pre-protests and also off the books."

"Five minutes out," the first technician announced.

"We saw they were broadcasting.  Any idea who or where they were broadcasting too?" Lions asked.  Greylick shook his head no.

"The trigonometry shows the data bursts were getting bounced into Saskatchewan.  We don't have anybody or anything there to retransmit.  Nobody does.  So, we're still not sure who the reports were going to."

"What did the reports say?" Lions asked.

"No telling.  It was all just a bunch of pro-words.  Maybe…" Greylick began, but the Chief Marshal cut him off.

"It doesn't matter what the messages said or who they went to.  What matters is The Colonel's son and his fellow traitors are down there, and its time for them to pay for their treachery."

After that, a heavy and uncomfortable silence lingered inside the van for several what felt like several long minutes.  The Chief Marshal seemed to be in a killing mood.  All wisely thought it best not to antagonize their commander.  After an appropriate pause, General Greylick spoke to Colonel Lions.

"While you were gone they found Captain Hartsdale outside Confluence, alive.  She's on her way back now."

"Any sign of the other two?" Lions asked.  Greylick shook his head no.  They were still missing.  Lions said, "Well, at least the captain is back and safe."

Greylick grimaced and shook his head no again.  "Back, but maybe not safe.  She seems to have gone insane."  That shocked Lions.

"Insane?  She wasn't gone missing that long.  What the hell happened to her?"

"She probably saw something she couldn't handle," Gorman interrupted.  The Chief Marshal was talking, but he was also distant, as if he were talking to himself, or to some entity on another plane of existence.  Gorman continued, "Doctor Chosen was not the Neanderthal we made him out to be.  He accomplished things lesser men could not even dream of."

"Thirty seconds out."  This time it was the technician who interrupted.  One of the screens inside the van showed the point of view from the unregistered drone's nose camera; a black-and-white feed of thermal images.  The drone crested a ridgeline and there, in the center of its field of view, was the black hot image of human bodies.

"I count five… maybe six bodies," the second technician said.  "Hard to tell.  Looks like they are all sleeping next to each other."

"You can see the outline of their equipment," Greylick said, tracing a line on the monitor with his finger.  Gorman's face twisted into a malign rictus.

"You are weapons free," the Chief Marshal said to the technician.  "And clear to fire."

"Roger, sir," the first technician replied.  He aligned the pip of the weapon controls with the center of the black-hot blob representing human bodies.  "Missile away."

There were two flashes.  The first was from the Hell Fire's motor washing out the nose camera.  It took a few moments for the image to clear, then the second flash came when the weapon impacted into the target.  On the screen they saw bits of equipment and the black-hot blobs of once-were human bodies fly in all directions.

"That's a kill," the second technician said.  "Probability of survival is zero point …."

"Fire the second missile," Gorman snarled.  His command was nearly a shout.  The two technicians looked at each other but quickly complied.

"Missile way."

Two more flashes and the debris was scattered again.  Lions thought he saw the black-hot images representing human bodies begin to cool into gray.  Even so, Chief Marshal Gorman was not satisfied.  The veins at Gorman's temples pulsed; those distinguished temples, highlighted with grey streaks on raven black hair.  Gorman pushed the first technician out of the chair and took control of the drone.

Lions and Greylick watched as Gorman circled the drone around, brought its nose over onto the smoking crater, then dove the drone down and crashed it into the center of what just so recently was the encampment of The Colonel's son and his companions.  The screen went blank.  Everybody in the trailer watched the dead screen for what seemed to Lions, a long time.

Gorman spoke.  "Leave us."  The technicians disappeared from the van as if their lives depended on it.  Gorman said to his two subordinates.

"I want those two techs gone."

Both Lions and Greylick dreaded that the Chief Marshal meant he wanted them dead.  They internally breathed a sigh of relieve when Gorman asked, "Do we still have a station up in Kodiak?"

"We do," Greylick said quickly, believing the lives of his two technicians hung in the balance.

"Get them up there, tomorrow," Gorman said.  "From there, transfer them to our mission in Kowloon.  I want them as far away as possible.  It goes without saying, what just happened tonight does not get released until I say so."

Lions swallowed.  He asked cautiously, "At some point this is getting released?"

Gorman answered.  "Of course.  The Colonel stole a nuclear weapon.  His son was complicit in the act.  So was whoever else was down there with him, along with the Crown Prince, and Major K, and whoever else attempts to stand in my way."  Gorman's gloomy mood changed.  His face brightened into a smile.

"I'm starting to think The Colonel did me a favor.  His act is the perfect justification for me to do anything I want.  Now, how are we for Griffins after the Confluence fiasco?"

"We've still got several squadrons ready to fly.  If this about what's going on outside The Bay, there is a section down at Grants Pass standing by for tasking," Lions said.  Gorman's smile broadened.

"Good. Get them flying.  With The Colonel's son out of the way, our next step is to contact whoever is still alive down in Gomorrah."

"And after that?" Lions asked.  Gorman did not answer.  But Lions could tell the malevolent gears in the Chief Marshal's mind were turning, turning, turning.


---------------------------------Chapter 15-------------------------------------
Colt
The explosions woke the sleeping members of the party.  At the first sound of thunder their training kicked in.  They took up their arms and were ready for action instinctively.  But, when they saw the burning vehicles on the opposite ridgeline and realized what just happened, and what that meant for their futures, they sat down in the tunnel.  A dark, ominous, depressed mood filled the air.  Robins spoke first.

"Unless I'm missing something, and I don't think I am, I'd say our own guys just tried to kill us."  His tone was more observational than accusatory, unlike Doc.

"They didn't try and kill us.  They tried to kill him," Doc said, pointing at Colt.  Over Colt's shoulder, the burning decoy camp was visible.  "We're just along for the bargain."

"Somebody'll be along shortly to do a battle damage assessment on that strike," Ajax said.  "What're we going to do then?"

"I don't think we need to worry about anybody coming along to look for us," Lefranc said.

"Oh, you got it all figured out, huh?" Doc replied confrontationally.

"I think I've got enough of it figured out," Lefranc said.  He spoke calmly.  He wasn't confrontational, but he wasn't giving ground either.  "The Chief Marshal won't send out anybody from the Long Range Group to check this out, or any of the regular forces either for that matter.  After what The Colonel did, he'll never trust a Spartan Knight again.  The only ground unit he trusts is the Capital Guard.  He might send them out, but scouting and patrolling and tracking aren't what they're trained for."

"Maybe not, but they can put two and two together.  They'll see a big hole in the ground but no bodies inside," Doc said.

"No, but they will see all your old uniform pieces lying around.  Pieces with your DNA all over them.  They'll see weeks' worth of trash all over the place.  They'll find pools of your blood."

"Our blood?" Ajax asked.  Lefranc nodded.

"How many times have the medics drawn your blood since you signed up? You think they were doing it for grins?  I got bags of your blood and dumped it all over that harbor site.  Anybody shows up to check it out and they'll see your blood, bits of your clothes and boots, they'll see animal tracks and drag marks, and they'll think the coyotes came along and made a meal out of us.  In other words, they'll see what they expect to see. They'll see what they want to see."

"What if they don't?" Colt asked.  "What if they get curious and start looking around.  What if they find this place?"

"I doubt they'll find this place," Lefranc said.  "It is pretty hard to spot.  But if they do…"  Lefranc looked down into the black depths of the tunnel, and his face went cold.  "Honestly, if the Capital Guard goes wandering around in these tunnels, that might be a good thing for us.  My sense of it is, if they come in here, they'll never leave."

"Why do you say that?"

"Just a hunch," Lefranc said.  Colt and the other looked down the length of the tunnel's endless darkness.  The topic of the tunnel's depths produced a cold feeling.

"This is bullshit," Doc snapped.  Ajax nodded in agreement.  Doc pointed at Colt again.  "His dad was the one that stole the bomb and blew up Gomorrah.  This ain't got anything to do with the rest of us.  I wanted to go to medical school someday.  I signed up to be a Spartan Knight, not some outlaw."

"I had things I wanted to do too," Ajax pouted.  "I wanted a tattoo."  He was ignored.

"Maybe you wanted to go to medical school in the long-term," Lefranc said.  "But in the short-term, you were going off to fight Gomorrah.  All of you were.  And so were the rest of your contemporaries.  You were going off to fight Gomorrah just like your fathers did.  And your grandfathers and your great grandfathers.

"And if you weren't killed in combat, maybe you go and have some sons of your own, and grandsons.  And guess what they would get to go and do?  That's right.  They get to march off and fight Gomorrah."

Ajax lowered his head sheepishly when Lefranc started talking about family.  The old sniper pushed on.

"Maybe those sons and grandsons don't come home.  Or maybe they come back missing arms, or legs, or faces.  Maybe they come back missing their balls because those got blown off by some Gomorrah bastard.

"You're young.  You don't have the perspective that I do.  We were at war with Gomorrah longer than any of you have been alive.  Longer than I've been alive.  New Sparta was fighting Gomorrah before it was even a country.  What kind of men would we be to allow the war to go on forever?  His dad changed that dynamic.  Maybe his methods were extreme, but The Colonel destroyed Gomorrah and killed the High Council.  He did what needed to be done."

Colt saw that Ajax and Doc were the ones in resistance, but that resistance was wavering.  Ajax now looked up at Lefranc with watery eyes.  Doc was looking away, looking off down the tunnel.

"Every Spartan is called upon to sacrifice," Lefranc went on.  "You won't be any different. Its just that the sacrifice you'll be expected to make will be different."

Colt looked at the others, reading their souls through their faces.  Doc, who was at first defiant, was wilting.  Ajax looked pouty.  Robins, the newcomer and outsider, seemed to understand the importance of the moment.  Christian.  Christian looked ready to take on the Chief Marshal and the whole world.

"Look," Colt began.  "I'm sorry you all got pulled into this, I am.  I had no idea what my dad was doing.  I don't think anybody did.  To be honest, I hardly knew the guy.  Growing up, he was always out on campaign, out fighting the war.  But Lefranc is right.  We've been at war with Gomorrah since forever.  We could have won the war, many times over.  We could have, but we never did.  People in charge, people like the Chief Marshal, were content to just let things go on as they always did.  They were comfortable in their complacency, and they paid for their complacency with the lives of people like us.

"I can understand you not wanting to be out here.  I know you weren't asked to volunteer, and you think that maybe this isn't your fight.  Just remember, the Chief Marshal tried to kill you too.  He tried to kill you just because you happen to be with me right now, and he tried to kill all of us because he's pissed off at what my dad did.

"The Chief Marshal never tried to assassinate the High Council, or Doctor Chosen, or the high command of Gomorrah's armies, but he did just try to assassinate us.  Us.  We're his soldiers.  He's our commander, our officer, the guy who is supposed to be leading us.  When it came to Gomorrah, all he ever showed our enemy is mercy, patience, leniency.  But any Spartan who poses a threat to his legacy, all they get is ruthless cruelty."

Colt took a deep breath and let it out.  "I'm not asking you to overthrow our government.  I'm not asking you to go north and kill the Chief Marshal.  I guess what I am asking you to do is stick together.  It isn't fair, I'll give you that," Colt said, looking right at Ajax and Doc.  "It isn't fair.  But right now, we're all in this together.  We need to stick together if we're going to survive out here in the badlands.  We need to stick together and give the Crown Prince time to fix things back home."

Christian was the first to speak, and he spoke up quickly.  "Fuck it, man.  If you wanna go north and kill the Chief Marshal, I'll go with you."  That brought some nervous laughs.  Christian pressed.

"An endless war is about the best thing that can happen to a guy like me.  I'm not exactly programmed for regular society.

"But I ain't so selfish to think a whole population has to go off to war just to make my ass happy, to satisfy my dreams and aspirations, to save me from making the tough decisions I am paid to make.

"The way I see it, if the Chief Marshal can take a drone and use it to try and kill six of his own people… Well, if a guy is willing to do that he's willing to do a lot worse.  If we beat a guy like that by sticking together, sticking together with people like all of you, sign me up brother.  I'm in it.  I'm in it for the big win."

"I'm with you too," Robins said without prompting.  " If the Chief Marshal wants to punish you for what your dad did, then he's no better than Gomorrah and the High Council."
"We're with you too," Doc said, speaking for himself and Ajax.  Ajax nodded agreement, but still looked pouty.

"Thanks," Colt said.  Lefranc offered one of his rare smiles.

"Okay.  The bad guys blew up your decoy, just like you planned. And hopefully, they think we're dead.  So, what are we going to do now?" Doc asked.  "We can't live in this tunnel forever."

Lefranc pointed down the length of the tunnel.  "We head that way.  Two days later we'll come out, still in the Central Valley, but further north.  We make our way across the badlands west-northwest until we get to the coast.  I've got equipment stashed there, including radios.  We get to the coast, recover the gear, hunker down, and wait for the Crown Prince to contact us."

"That's not much of a plan," Robins said.

"Maybe not," Lefranc agreed.  "But we didn't have much time to put this together.  Despite what anybody might say, we weren't in on The Colonel's plans."

"Okay," Colt said, speaking to his team.  "No point in waiting around.  Let's gear up and get moving."

Before anybody could move, Ajax pouted and muttered something.  He spoke so low and pitifully that nobody could hear him.

"What was that?" Lefranc asked.

"My crossed swords," Ajax muttered again.  Lefranc's brow furrowed in puzzlement.  The others looked at Ajax quizzically as well.

"What?"

"My crossed swords," Ajax repeated pathetically.  "We got rushed out of school so fast I never got a chance to get my Spartan Knight crossed swords tattoo.  Now I'll never get it."

Lefranc looked at the big machine gunner like he had a second male organ growing out of his forehead.  "We're outlaws on the run from our own government.  The Chief Marshal is trying to kill us.  We're about to go tear-assing across the Gomorrah badlands, the land whose capital his dad just nuked.  If we don't play our cards right, both Gomorrah and New Sparta will be hunting us every step of the way.  All that, and you're worried about a tattoo?"  Lefranc shook his head, incredulous.  "I think you need to get your priorities straight."

Lefranc walked off to get his gear.  Colt and the others looked at Ajax.  The giant Spartan Knight still pouted, his lower lip puffed out like an upset baby, the scene made even more comical for both Ajax's enormous size and his sincerity.

"Easy for him to say.  He's already got his tattoo."


-------------------------------------------------------------------Chapter 16----------------------------------------------------------
Claw
Claw had not slept for more than five hours in a stretch since he could not remember when.  The workload was just too much.  There was too much going on, too much that needed his attention.  And when the work slackened, as it had this morning, Claw found himself too full of nervous energy to sleep.  The closest he came to relaxing was sitting in front of his trailer-offices and sketching with the bits of charcoal and tattered scrapbooks that Tomas brought him.  That was precisely what Claw was doing the morning the Spartans came.

Claw was quite pleased with his latest sketch and found himself admiring it when he heard Tomas's voice calling out.

"Boss! Boss!"

Claw set his charcoal down on the plywood table next to the sketch pad.  Tomas was running towards him, waving his arms.  Claw stood and walked towards the little urchin with his bright, Spanish eyes.  As he moved, Claw perceived two huge men wearing red sashes moving along with him.  These were his bodyguards, trad men who, sensing the tension between the trads and mods in the camp, had gravitated towards Claw.  'They think I can provide them safety,' Claw thought to himself when they first came forward and made the oath of loyalty.  'If only they knew what I've done to some of their trad brothers.'

Claw did not inform them of what he'd done to their trad brothers, but he accepted their service just the same.  Their service, and the service of several others.  Now he had armed guards around him around the clock.  That would make his little errands for Winston more challenging to pull off, but, the Oracle had been stepping up his already passionate and hateful rhetoric.  Armed guards seemed a sensible precaution.

Tomas ran forward.  His bare feet kicked up clouds of dust.  His prepubescent voice cracked as he yelled, "We got trouble coming, boss."  The bigger of the two guards stepped in front of Tomas, blocking off the lad's approach.  The guard held his ripper, a cobbled-together, post-protest machine pistol of dubious quality, at port arms.  Claw told the guard to stand down.  Tomas stopped to catch his breath, and then the words poured out.

"It’s the Oracle and Raux.  They're trying to steal the armored personnel carriers.  They tried to kidnap Diego."

Claw's eyes went wide with alarm.  They'd unearthed almost a company's worth of the squat, boxy M113 armored personnel carriers and thanks to Diego, about the only man Claw could find with enough mechanical sense to know which way to turn a wrench, they'd gotten several running.  Claw had those vehicles staged in a corner of the camp, never suspecting that the Oracle or his feline and cannibalistic companion might try and take them.  Claw had always taken it for granted that the armor belonged to Winston's empire.  If the Oracle was trying to take them, then what was this? A coup d'état?  Some play for power?  More likely the latter, Claw guessed.  The Oracle wanted the armor to strengthen his position against the trads.  'No,' Claw corrected himself.  'He wants the armor to use it against the trads.'  Claw shuddered with both fear and anger.

One of his red-sashed guards yelled.  Claw didn't pay attention, because he noticed Tomas was once again carrying the leather-wrapped package he tried to give him earlier.  What did Tomas have there, Claw wondered.  More important than that, Claw saw Diego, his master mechanic, running his way.  Diego was shirtless.  His round and hairy gut was drenched in blood that poured out of a wound on his head.  Claw ran to him.  At his side, more red-sashed guards armed with clubs and rippers and crude revolvers; big as submachine guns with triangle stocks.  When Claw got closer, he could see the fear on Diego's face.  Diego was a big man who always had a wrench, or some other heavy object close at hand.  He didn't strike Claw as somebody who scared easily, but he looked terrified.  One quick glance over Diego's shoulder told Claw why.

The Oracle and Raux led a company of snarling and sneering mods into Claw's corner of the camp.  Claw ran his eyes over the animalistic crowd of mutants as his one hand moved instinctively to the knife at his belt.  He did not see Kobi amongst their ranks.  The blue-feathered swordsman was still off pilfering the countryside, but there were plenty of hard looking mods none the less.  It was a mob of Tolkien-ish ghouls; fanged smiles, pointed ears, yellow eyes the color of urine, patches of mangy fir, shimmering scales.  More frightening than Doctor Chosen's transfiguring 'gifts' were the black sashes this mutant band wore.  Before the bomb, the gendarmes of Gomorrah wore red sashes over black uniforms.  This group wore black sashes, demonstrating organization and differentiating them from the red-sashed authorities of old.  Not too long ago, if Claw saw a mob one-tenth as intimidating he'd have run in the other direction.  Now, he steeled himself and marched right at the Oracle.  His own fighters filed in behind him.

"The armored trucks belong to us, and so does the mechanic, give him to us," The Oracle commanded Claw when the armed groups stopped just a few feet from each other.  Claw couldn't think of anything to say, so instead, he spat into the dust.  He hoped it would make him look cool and tough.  It had the effect of making Raux growl.  Her anger gave Claw confidence.

"Those don't belong to you.  They belong to Emperor Winston.  And you ain't getting my mechanic, so…" Claw searched for the right words and quickly found them.

"So, go somewhere and fuck off."

That insult brought about murmurs of approval from the armed trads behind him.  Men smiled at each other and nodded approval, shifting weapons from one hand to another.  That boosted Claw's confidence too.  In many ways, this showdown between Claw and the Oracle was a battle of self-confidence more than a battle of ideas.  The Oracle looked taken aback.

"How dare you defy the will of the Great Father, Doctor Chosen.  He and the Earth Mother provided these weapons for his chosen children, not some…"

Claw cut the withered old man off.  "Doctor Chosen buried them for all of us.  All of us!  ALL OF US!  They belong to Winston, not you, and not that naked cunt standing beside you!"  

Claw turned and made a sweeping gesture over the trads behind him, including them in this confrontation.  "We dug them out.  We got them running while you cowered in the tent, letting that metal box poison your mind."

"How dare you.  This is heresy.  This is blasphemy against the Earth Mother."

"No, it's blasphemy against you, and you're not getting the armor.  You think I don't know what you want them for?  You ain't getting shit."  Unconsciously, Claw drew his knife and stabbed it into the air to add emphasis to his words.  Raux stepped protectively in front of the Oracle and raise a clawed hand.  Claw was about to shout again, but he heard a chant rising nearby.

"Shame. Shame. Shame."

At first, Claw thought it was coming from the mods.  It wasn't, and when he looked around, he saw the intensifying chant wasn't coming from his own people either.  It was coming from the others in the camp, the masses who were disinterested in the petty struggle between trads and mods and only wanted to survive.  The Oracle was talking now, but Claw didn't hear the words due to his preoccupation with the chant.  Even the Oracle seemed distracted, his rant lost power the longer he spoke.

"Shame.  Shame.  Shame."

As the chant built up, so did a third mob.  They built in size, and from his vantage point, Claw saw they were all looking to the north.  They were looking to the sky, pointing and gesturing, and chanting.  With each passing moment and each shout of, 'shame' the air seemed to thicken with pandemonium.  Claw saw a woman waving wildly from the top of the Doctor Chosen monument with both arms.  Despite the emotions produced from the mystery of the chant and the confrontation with the Oracle, Claw had a moment of clarity, thinking that she was going to fall off.  Sure enough, she did.  She hit the ground, threw up a cloud of dust, and did not move.  Nobody paid her a second glance.

"Shame. Shame. Shame."

Claw soon saw the reason for the chanting.  Flying in from the north were two Spartan aircraft.

Major "Sleazy" Peters

"Sir, the railgun is ready and showing green lights across the board, and if I may speak freely, sir, this mission is absolute bullshit."

"Noted," Major Ron "Sleazy" Peters replied to his crew chief, Technical Sergeant Brady over the Griffin's intercom system.  "Now keep your eyes open, we're coming up on the zone now."

That morning, Sleazy led the two Griffins on a mission from Grant's Pass in once-was-Oregon, south into the heart of Gomorrah.  Their destination was the refugee encampment outside The Bay that the drones from the Spartan Frigate Youngblood had found.  Brady spoke for the rest of the Griffin's crew, expressing his doubts about the current mission.  Sleazy felt the same way, although he didn't say so.  As the mission commander, he felt it better to keep some things to himself.

Instead of the aircraft's intercom, Sleazy keyed his radio and spoke to the second aircraft in the section.

"How are we looking up there Four-Deuce-Five?"  The second aircraft responded back.

"Looking good.  The bundles are ready to go."

"Roger," Sleazy replied.  The augmented reality built into his helmet showed their target was just a few minutes away.  Sleazy keyed his radio again.  "Let's slow it down, and I'm going to break right and go into a counter-clockwise circle over the zone."

"Roger-wilco," Griffin Four-Deuce-Five responded.

In the seat to his left, Sleazy's copilot, Captain Grace announced, "Tally," and pointed with a hand gloved in green Nomex.  And there they were.  Crowds of them around a sprawl of lean-tos, shanty sheds, tents, and hovels fashioned out of whatever could be drug from the ruins.  Smoke from campfires curled skyward in dirty black tendrils.  Waves and obscene gestures rose from the crowds.  The encampment screamed poverty and misery, but it was massive.  Sleazy didn't have a good way of estimating the population, but he guessed there were tens of thousands of people down there; the miserable survivors of The Colonel's attack on The Bay.

"What do you think that is," Captain Grace asked.  He used the augmented reality built into their linked helmets to indicate a structure in the middle of the camp.  Half-naked bodies swarmed all over it.  Some were hammering and sawing and passing up boards.  Others gesticulated wildly, thrown into a frenzy at the sight of the approaching aircraft.  Sleazy's smart helmet said that whatever it's purpose, the wood structure was sixty feet tall and about half as wide at its base.

"No idea what it is, and not sure I care.  Let's stand ready on the railgun.  Spool up the controls.  Brady, get everybody into position back there."

Part of the Griffin aircrafts' beauty was their flexibility.  They could be easily reconfigured to fill a variety of roles.  For this mission, Griffin Three-Deuce-Five was configured as a gunship.  It sported a railgun from its port side.  The cargo bay of the aircraft now held the railgun's batteries, its loading mechanism, and its magazine of projectiles.  Computers linked the railgun to the augmented reality system the pilots and aircrew viewed through their helmets and Heads Up Displays.  Together, the railgun and advanced targeting and fire control system made the Griffin a formidable weapon, a technological upgrade to the venerable AC-130 aircraft.

In addition to the offensive weapon in the form of the railgun, Sleazy's Griffin also had a defensive weapon; a Point Defense Cannon (PDC) mounted in a turret on its belly.  The turret's automation allowed it to identify, track, and shoot down any incoming missiles that might want knock Three-Deuce-Five out of the sky.

"Railgun is spooled up, PDC armed," Captain Grace announced.  Then, turning off his intercom so the rest of the aircrew couldn't hear, he said to his pilot, "And just between us, Brady's right.  This mission is bullshit.  It wasn’t that long ago were trying to kill these people.  We were trying to kill them, and they were trying to kill us.  And now we’re going to do this?"

"We are," Sleazy replied.  "Times change I guess."  That answer did not placate his copilot who continued his rant.

"And what about The Colonel?  He goes off and does what we were all told since birth we're supposed to do; he takes down Gomorrah.  You'd think he'd be treated as a hero.  Instead, back home you'd think he's a war criminal."

Sleazy was listening, but he didn't want to.  He felt the same way as Captain Grace and Technical Sergeant Brady.  He didn't like the idea of working with Gomorrah.  He also didn't like the way they demonized The Colonel back in the Emerald City.  But Sleazy also felt conflicted.  Whatever his personal feelings, he was an officer, a pilot, and the mission commander.  He had a job to do, and he couldn't let his personal opinions interfere with his mission or endanger his aircraft and crew.  He was an officer of New Sparta and expected to do his duty. Period.  So, while his copilot spoke, Sleazy focused on the mission.  He kept his eyes on the enemy/refugee encampment, brought his aircraft into a descent, and watched the altimeter.  Captain Grace continued.

"The Colonel does what every kid dreamed of, and now you'd think he's a mass murderer.  Hell, he’s been accused of mass murder."

"The Colonel and the Chief Marshal never saw eye to eye.  Time will tell if what he did was murder or something else," Sleazy said to his copilot, careful not to use the intercom.  Then he keyed the radio.

"Griffin Four-Deuce-Five, how are we looking?"

"Good.  Two minutes out."

"Copy, two minutes."

The other aircraft was ahead of Sleazy's and off to port.  Its cargo ramp was down.  The crew chiefs were visible in the back, tethered in with thick olive drab bungee cords.

"500 feet AGL," Captain Grace announced.  "Let’s hope they don’t have manpads."

"If they have manpads then I guess we’ll know The Colonel was right all along," Sleazy said with his usual understated stoicism.  Through his helmet's augmented reality he watched Grace slew the railgun's targeting pip over the enemy camp; over the crazy wooden structure, across a wavering line of tents, along a scattering of metal shipping containers, onto a neat row of…

"Those are armored personnel carriers," Grace announced with a hint of alarm.

"Scan for missiles or anti-aircraft guns."

On the other aircraft, the aircrew pushed a pallet of cargo out to the edge of the lowered cargo ramp.  And then…

"Bundles away," the pilot of the second aircraft said.  Sleazy watched the palletized load on the aircraft's ramp slide out, tumble, then sprout a parachute of drab green silk.  Behind the first load came more palletized loads from deep inside that Griffin's cargo bay, each one sliding out and sprouting a parachute.  The cargo drifted gently down into a field of dry brown grass.  Sleazy banked his aircraft, circling the Gomorrah camp so that his railgun faced into the turn and down into the camp.  Grace played the railgun pip over the line of armored personnel carriers until Sleazy finally brought them all the way around and the two aircraft headed back north to Grant's Pass.

For Sleazy, the feelings of tension and self-doubt lingered.

Claw

Hours later, Claw found himself back in the shadowy interior of Winston's command tent.  Claw did not speak.  Neither did the Oracle.  The feud between trads and mods forgotten for the moment.  Instead, Claw, the Oracle, Winston, and the rest of the high command contemplated the small stockpile of crates and cartons recovered from the Spartan air delivery.  Each item was stenciled with the following:

HUMANITARIAN AID
PROVIDED BY WILLIAM POWELL GORMAN
CHIEF MARSHAL OF NEW SPARTA


When Winston spoke, his deep voice filled the interior of the tent.  "What's the haul?"


"Mostly food, medicine, things like that," Claw said meekly.  He felt emotional, shaken.  He looked down at his one good hand.  It was stained with blood.  So was his knife.  Blood stained Raux's skin too.  Claw added, "We had to kill some pilferers in the process."

And indeed, they had killed pilferers.  When they saw that The Spartan aircraft were dropping supplies, the crowd inside the encampment went mad.  The chants of shame stopped.  The people went into a frenzy, grabbing whatever they could from the supply bundles.  Claw and the Oracle immediately forgot their confrontation and united to collect and protect the supplies from the wild mob.  Whatever the Spartans were dropping, it was important enough that they couldn't let the crowd just take it.

The Oracle's people shot first.  They shot a man who refused to surrender his carton of dehydrated soup mix.  Claw thought that after this man was made an example, the others would comply.  Instead, it drove the other refugee into an even greedier, more desperate craze.  Now people felt they really had to get something or else they'd end up with nothing.  Passions which were already high from hunger, thirst, and hopelessness were pushed further.

The black-sashes and red-sashes were forced to wade into the crowd, clubbing with truncheons, hacking with machetes and sometimes shooting with the limited ammo they had.  They recovered all the supplies, but they had a pile of dead countrymen to show for their efforts.  

"You had to kill a few?  Pity." Winston observed, although his expression and body language didn't suggest he felt any pity at all.  Winston ran a blue-skinned hand with pewter-colored nailbeds over one of the supply crates.  His stroked it lovingly.

"I told you these Spartan’s were weak timber, didn’t I?  The Great Father knew.  They dropped a bomb on us, but now they're at our boots, licking and offering gifts and begging for our forgiveness."  Winston's mouth curled into a grin of gleaming white teeth, each one bio-engineered to fit Doctor Chosen's idea of perfection.

"This will be the first of many," Winston said.  "Next time, no need to be so heavy-handed."

"How can you be sure?" Claw asked.

"I know," Winston said. "Our Great Father, Doctor Chosen taught me well.  He knew these Spartans.  He resisted them and their militaristic patrimony ever since the protest.  He knew this Gorman too.  He had played Gorman for years, tempting that Spartan fool with promises."

"All hail the Great Father," the Oracle said.

"What promises?" Claw asked.

"Promises of immortality," Winston said.  Then, turning on a dime, he asked, "Any wounded? Wounded we can't heal?"

"A few," Claw answered.  "Some gutshot cases.  Some with broken heads or broken backs."

"Throw them on the fires tonight.  A sacrifice to the Great Father and the Earth Mother.  The smoke from their flesh will rise to meet our parents in their palace in the sky."

The Oracle threw out another hail to the Great Father.  Raux mumbled the same over her filed teeth.

"What about the supplies?  The food and medicine?" Claw asked.

"Distribute the food as best you can.  I know it isn't much, but we need to spread it around.  Especially with the sacrifices tonight.  Use your best judgment with the medicine and the rest."

"The food must go to the mods," The Oracle chimed in, his voice high and wavery.  Claw thought the old man looked even sicker than before.  His hair was stringy, white, mangy.  His limbs looked even more twisted.  One arm seemed hooked at the elbow.

"The food did not come from the Spartans.  They came from the Great Father and the Earth Mother.  The Spartan planes were merely a vehicle, the means of their mercy and benevolence.  And since these gifts come from the mother and father, it is their children, the mods who should be rewarded."

"Maybe," Winston said.  "But Claw handles logistics."  Claw might have been happy for the support if it weren't for the fact that Winston didn't even look his way, nor smile, nor give the slightest hint of encouragement.

The Oracle wasn't the slightest bit discouraged.  He pushed back, advocating for the mods.

"Are we going to let the Great Father's and Earth Mother's children starve, just so Claw can feed the unworthy, the left behinds?"

"Claw handles logistics," Winston repeated.  His words were perfunctory, devoid of passion.

"Sire, the trads are genetically no different than the Spartan terrorists.  They are animals, peasants, dog-vermin.  You cannot allow mods to go hungry just to satiate…"

"Oracle, that's enough," Winston said.  Raux moved to the Oracle, touching his arm in a gesture meant to both sooth and warn.  The Oracle shrugged his thin shoulder violently and brushed her off.

"Do you know what the trads are doing?  Do you know what Claw did this morning? Advocating for those inferiors.  He gave them the tanks.  He'll give them the food.  We are the chosen people of the Great Father, not them.  If those trads rise up against us…"

"Shut it," Winston said.  He didn't shout.  He didn't rage or turn red.  His calmness was what was disquieting.  The Oracle deflated.  Raux went back to the Oracle's side and patted him.  However lukewarm Winston's support, Claw thought a victory was still a victory.  He consolidated his win over the Oracle by moving on to the next subject.

"We still have the last item."

"Let's see it," Winston commanded.

Claw took an item from the pile and presented it to Winston.  It was a box with thick, black plastic walls.  Stenciled on the lid was:

FROM THE OFFICE OF THE CHIEF MARSHAL
TO THE LEADER OF GOMORRAH


Claw unlocked the latches and threw open the hinged lid.  Inside, protected by thick foam padding, sat a two-way radio.


Claw said, "I think this Chief Marshal wants to talk to you."

Winston replied, "Of course he does."



Chapter 17

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

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

"Far," Lefranc answered with a word.

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

"We get out," Lefranc answered.

"Yeah.  And then what do we do?"

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

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

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

"We'll stop here for four hours."

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

"How much further?"

"Two more days," Lefranc answered.

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

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

"Intersection."

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

The Way Station
J. Chambers
D. Callahan

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


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

Lefranc Shrugged.

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

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

"Don't remember it?"

"I must've missed it."

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

Lefranc shrugged.

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

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

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

"What’s down there?" Colt asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hurtly Steam Motors

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

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

"Tell that to Hurtly," Christian said.

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

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

"I agree."

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian shrugged.

"Zero, zero, one, nine."

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

"Now what?"

"Now, we go up."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nothing.  Just hurry."

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

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

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

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

"We left the lock down there."

Shit, Colt thought.  "I'll get it."

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

Colt saw the lock and snatched it up.

"Found it."

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

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

"Got it."

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

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

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

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

Lefranc came close, leaned into Colt and whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

"Well, shit."

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

"What are those," Colt asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

"Something new?" Colt asked.  Lefranc shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What about them?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Jesus, Jesus?" Ajax asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hide."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 18

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

"Long way to what?" Murray asked.

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

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

"You sure you want to do this?"

Applegate made a sweeping affirmative gesture with his hands.

Your funeral, Murray thought as he signed the document.


The Crown Prince

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Go where?"

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

"Kill who?  The Chief Marshal?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We can still work within the system."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Lions

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

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

"Testimony on what?" General Greylick asked.

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

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

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

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

"Suicide?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A few pallet loads," Lions answered.

"How long would that last them?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Appoint Colonel Needles as commander of the operation."

"Me," Colonel Hendrick Needles gasped.

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

Lions coughed.  Greylick shifted uneasily but said nothing.

"Something wrong," Gorman asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A colonel?" Hendrick Needles asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"My surveillance teams haven't reported anything."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 19

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

The Doors, Roadhouse Blues

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

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

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

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

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

"I disagree," Colt said.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lefranc grumbled something disapproving.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We did."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It’s a stupid idea."

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

"You pulling rank on me, kid?"

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the difference?”

Lefranc spat onto the ground.

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

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

Colt nodded.

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

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

"You want this?"

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

"We're Spartans," Colt began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Murray kept it going.

Bring A Tear Of Joy To My Eyes


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

More scuffing sounds from the back.

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

Anne Murray crooned.


And Tell Me Everything's Gonna Be All Right


Lefranc's hand drifted to his axe.

Another titter.  Another leer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The barman dropped behind his counter to retrieve some weapon.

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

Anne Murray started singing again.

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

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

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

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

"Bar!" Colt shouted.


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

"Squirters," Doc said.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Behind his counter, the barman yelled.  Incoherently.

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

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

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

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

Anne sang.

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


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

Anne stopped singing.

Colt maneuvered around the end of the bar.

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

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

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

"Get a grenade in there!"

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

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

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

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

Colt sent the grenade skidding across the floor.

Christian ducked back behind his barricade and opened his mouth.

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

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

Robins asked, "What happened to Anne Murray?"

"I shot her ass," Christian answered.

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

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

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

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

"Ichthyosis," Lefranc asked, dubiously.

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

Ajax thundered.

"Ichthyosis my ass.  This mother fucker has gills!"

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

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

Nobody made a sound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One… Two…

"A hell'uva thing."

Three.

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

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

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

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

"Bullshit," Ajax mumbled.

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

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

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

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

"Who are you?" Colt demanded.

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

"My name's Nicky-Lee."


------------------------Chapter 20-----------------------------------

The Priest's Tale (Instrumental)
From the album, The Wolves of the Calla: Music inspires by the Dark Tower
BGG Productions
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEgXyWuES1c


Colt

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

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

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

"How?" Colt asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I got unlucky," Nicky-Lee said.

"That's a bullshit psyche job."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Take 'em with us," Colt answered.

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

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

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

"Doubt it."

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

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

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

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

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

"Anything less drastic?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

All shuddered at the prospect of cannibalism.

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


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

One did not.


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

So they took action.

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

"Who's Eldra?" Colt asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You leave with her?" Colt asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What do you mean self-aware?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

"What d'you think Master Guns?"

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

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

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

"It could all be one giant delusion."

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

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

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

"That's pretty fantastic," Colt agreed.

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

Colt toed the dirt.  Then he spoke.

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

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

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


Chapter 21

Dishonored

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nort Ken-tral Posi Tro-nicks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is… interesting,” Dishonored replied.

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

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

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

Longevity: Volume 6

Chamo asked, “What’s dat?”

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

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

“What the hell are these?” Chamo asked.

“Satanic symbols,” Dishonored muttered.

“Huh?”

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

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

“Bullshit,” the big man said, disbelieving.

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

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

“Bullshit,” Chamo repeated.

“No bullshit,” Dishonored replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lions

Lance Corporal Howarth didn't stand a chance.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What do you got?" Sergeant Church yelled.

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

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

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

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

Sergeant Church looked skeptical.  But then another trooper shouted.

"I see it! There!"

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

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

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

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

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

And froze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Griffins turned away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lions and Needles entered the next warehouse.

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

"Check this out," Needles said.

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

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

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

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

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

"What else have you got?" Lions asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Needles gestured towards the next warehouse with his swagger stick.

"Let me show you something."

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

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

"You got ammo for any of these?"

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

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

"Does that BRDM work?" Lions asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come Back to The Emerald City Soonest

And then:

He's Still Alive


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

Deep Purple, Highway Star


Chapter 22
Colt

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

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

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

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

"That work?" Colt asked.

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

"Sounds disgusting."

"It is, but I need my fix."

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

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

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

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

"You think we should do anything with him?"

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

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

"I agree," Colt said.

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


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

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

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

Nobody responded.

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

Still nobody responded.

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

Still none of the Spartan's spoke.

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

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

Nicky-Lee stopped with the questions.

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

"How far to this Jefferson place?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What makes you say that?"

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

"He always looks like that," Colt replied.

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

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

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

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

"The computer that you blew up?"

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

Nicky-Lee's face twisted with anger.

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

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

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

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

Nicky-Lee nodded.

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

Nicky-Lee nodded gravely.

"And it can hack the Morning Star network."

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

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

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

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

"Turn on your lights, asshole."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"There's an army out there."

"We noticed."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it didn't.

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

"Got any ideas?" Colt asked.

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

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

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

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

"You'll want these."

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

"I got him."

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

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

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

Christian let out a long, calming breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Turn!"

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

"Turn!"

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

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

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

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

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

"This rig's done," Lefranc shouted.

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

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

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

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

"Anybody hit," Doc asked.  Nobody was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So where are they now?" Lefranc asked.

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

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

After about ten minutes they heard the dull "whump" of a grenade exploding.

Chapter 23

Colt

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

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

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

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

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

"Yeah, they're looking for us."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They traded, the rifle for the binoculars.

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

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

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

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

"You're still on this Jefferson kick?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They look angry," Colt said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind them, Christian let out a long, raspy snore, sat up and grabbed the can at his side.

"What did I miss?" he asked.  Without waiting for an answer, he chugged at the can, swished a mouthful of it around in his mouth, then spat out a stream of dark brown liquid into the dust.

Sleazy

Sleazy and his two Griffin section were somewhere above the Once-Was California, near the coastline.  Today, Sleazy's aircraft was configured as a transport.  The other Griffin was set up as a heavy gunship.  Batteries lined its cargo hold, and a railgun projected out one side.  Down below, breakers crashed along the beach.  The radio squawked.

"Ground callsign, this is Griffin Three-Deuce-Five.  We are battle position Hue City, inbound."

"Roger Three-Deuce-Five.  This is callsign Dishonored-Six, actual.  Standby for landing zone brief."

"Ready to copy," Sleazy answered.  While the ground station relayed the details of the landing zone, he switched over his radio to his wingman's channel.

"Trail, this is Lead, how are we looking on that railgun?"

"Greenlights across the board boss.  Who is the pickup for anyway?"

"No idea," Sleazy answered.  "This mission came straight from some Capital Guard bagman.  He was light on the details and heavy with the threats if the mission failed and all that black-ops bullshit."

"You think this is related to that other drop off we made?"

"I hope not," Sleazy said.  "Just stay frosty on the railgun.  Any mission this deep into Gomorrah has got to be dicey."

Sleazy switched to the intercom.

"Brady?"

"Yo?" Tech Sergeant Brady answered from the cargo compartment.

"The 'stay frosty' order goes for you too."

"We're on it," Brady answered.  Like most Spartan aircrews, Three-Deuce-Five kept a small arsenal of privately acquired weapons handy.  The junior crew member had an automatic shotgun with a drum full of buckshot close at hand.  Brady, the senior crew chief, held an infantry automatic rifle loaded with a sixty-round magazine.  If trouble got close to their aircraft, they planned to just empty their weapons into the threat and hope Sleazy could fly them out of danger.  Brady checked the chamber of the weapon.  Satisfied with the flash of brass inside, he rechecked the safety and stood by.

The Griffin's turned inland and climbed over the ridgelines that ran parallel to the coast.  After one such ridgeline, the radio barked.

"Got you on visual Three-Deuce-Five.  Smoke is available to mark."

"Pop your smoke," Sleazy answered.  At his tail, Griffin Four-Deuce-Five added power and climbed.  Once at the desired altitude, it would fly in a racetrack pattern over the landing zone, keeping its railgun trained on whatever might be below.

"Popping smoke,"  the radio answered.

"Tally smoke.  Green," Sleazy answered.  Then pointed out the rising green pillar of smoke to his copilot.

"Yep.  Our contacts must be in that treeline bordering the road," Captain Grace answered.

"Whoever they are, they're running a tight operation.  That smoke is the only sign anybody is out there.  I'm going to bring the ramp around, butt it up near the trees, and give us more runway space if we need to get out in a hurry."

"Ever the paranoid," Grace said.

"Paranoid keeps you alive down here."

The Griffin pivoted around, and Brady lowered the ramp.  The back of the Griffin opened, just as it had before when Brady set Colt and his team loose into the Gomorrah badlands.  As soon as the aircraft touched down, a man stalked out of the vegetation, waved and Brady, then waved back towards the treeline.  For Brady, that's when it happened.

Out of the treeline came a quartet of gunmen.  They were armed like Spartans, with New Spartan carbines, submachine guns, and armor.  But they didn't look like Spartans.  They looked like a wild tribe of pagan warriors, each one tattooed and branded and ritualistically scarred.  Shaved heads, piercings, stained beards, and dreadlocks.  Worst of all were the eyes.  Each one's eyes were cataract milky; the sign of hardcore drug use.

In between these gunmen came a human parade that shocked Brady.  Twelve men and women, each naked and tied to the others by a length of rope that connected neck to neck.  They stumble-ran towards the Griffin.  Loaded into their arms were crates and cartons, computers, and bags full of paper.

"Get it in there.  Get it all inside," The lead gunman shouted.  He wore a set of Spartan coveralls with the sleeves cut off.  He carried two Spartan submachine guns.  One he held in his hand, the other he'd slung over a shoulder.   His eyes were two faint blue dots in milky pools.  He grinned sadistically as the naked slaves entered the Griffin and dumped their cargo on the floor.  Brady looked into the prisoners' eyes and saw only hopelessness.  One naked woman stood motionless on the deck of the Griffin after dropping her armload of three-ring binders.  Her hesitation amounted to a plea for help.  A gunman gave her no warning to get moving, but instead gave the rope a tug hard enough to send heads whiplashing back and forth.  In a flash, it was over.  The cargo deposited on the floor of the Griffin, and the naked captives disappeared back into the trees along with all the gunmen save the one in the coveralls.  He handed Brady a piece of paper, then leaned in close so he could be heard above the engine noise.

"Here's your manifest.  And give the Chief Marshal my compliments."  And without another word to Brady, he disappeared.

Brady thought the man looked familiar, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

"We loaded?" Major Peters asked over the intercom.

Brady unrolled the manifest, and there it was.  There was the answer to why that gunman looked so familiar.

"Brady?  We loaded," Sleazy asked again.

The bottom of the manifest was signed, R Vlain.

"We're loaded boss.  Get us outta here, now.  Fast."

"We hot?"

"No, but get us out now.  I'll explain later.  Just go.  Now!"

Brady closed the ramp as the Griffin lifted off.  When they were safely back at altitude and returning to their home base of Grants Pass, Brady went forward and explained they'd just accepted a load of cargo from the Spartan outlaw Rodrigo Vlain.



Dishonored

Captain Rodrigo Vlain, now known as Dishonored to his crew of freebooters and ruffians, watched the Griffin aircraft climb into the sky and disappear.  He did this with some sense of melancholy, of longing for the past life that was no longer his, the life of a Spartan Knight.  Those days were gone now, and they were never coming back.  His war crimes and banishment executed any possibility of that with the finality of the headsman's axe.  Now he had only his bunch.  It wasn't the same, but it would do.

When the Griffins disappeared into the haze of sky, Chamo approached and stood off of Dishonored's shoulder.

"What do you want to do with them?" Chamo asked, and he gestured in the direction of the trees where the naked captives huddled and trembled.  Vlain\Dishonored spared them a glance, considering them but only for a moment.   They'd hit another lab since the first one where they found the pathetic attempt at a Pegasus.  They found no more monstrosities there.  They did find more of Doctor Chosen's research, including more of the notebooks bound in human skin.  The slaves didn't carry those onto the aircraft.  Dishonored wasn't giving those to the Chief Marshal.  No.  The Chief Marshal didn't deserve those.  Dishonored would keep those books and their secrets all to himself.

After considering the captives for a brief moment, Dishonored turned away.

"We're heading east, more sites to hit.  We can always get more slaves.  Have your fun with these and then get rid of 'em.  We need to ride, and they'll only slow us down."

Chamo grinned and drew the hammer from his belt.  Dishonored found a shady spot to sit down, then opened up his latest skin-bound book.  In the background, pleas for mercy became screams.  Screams became moans and grunts of pain, and those became whimpers, and those became the still silence of death.  And while this happened, Dishonored sat transfixed by the glamor of Doctor Chosen's writings.


Sleazy

Sleazy felt little but exhaustion when he returned to Grant's Pass.  A round trip that far into the Gomorrah badlands required a midair refueling and took several hours, even with the engines rotated for forward flight.  Compounding the physical exhaustion was the emotional exhaustion of knowing they'd just accepted cargo from a Spartan outlaw, and done so under the orders of the very authority that outlawed him.  What he wanted to do when he landed at Grants Pass was to shower, sleep, and take some time to sort this all out in his mind.  For Sleazy, no such respite was in the cards.

New Sparta designated Grants Pass as an expeditionary airfield.  As the designation would suggest, the facilities at Grants Pass Expeditionary Airfield were minimal.  Along the airfield were a few revetments, maintenance buildings, and barracks.  Further out stood the fuel tanks, ammunition bunkers, and armories.  Beyond those lay the force protection measures; the fence line, ground sensors, and the gun towers which were all automated.  Grant's pass rarely housed more than half a squadron of aircraft and the necessary support personnel.

When the airfield came into view, Sleazy found the sleepy nature of his home station upended.  All manner of aircraft filled the tarmac and adjacent spaces.  In the rougher ground unsuitable for parking aircraft, sat dozens upon dozens of trucks and transport vehicles.  Soldiers scrambled around each one, unloading its cargo onto pallets to be later loaded into the backs of aircraft.  At the far end of the runway, Spartan workers erected an antenna farm and metal towers topped with radar arrays.  New floodlights on mechanical masts drove away the darkness.  Mixed in with the workers were Capital Guardsmen in their distinct black and red uniforms.

"What the hell is all this?" Brady asked.

"Get up here and give me that cargo manifest,"  Sleazy said with urgency.  As soon as Sleazy got the paper slip, he ripped it in half and then, not knowing what else to do, he ate the two halves.  Despite his call sign, Major Peters was as straight-laced as they came.  He believed in the system.  There was a book for a reason, and he did things by the book because that was the right thing to do.  Even so, something in his gut told him that manifest, with Rodrigo Vlain's signature on the bottom it was dangerous; dangerous to himself and his crew.

"We never saw Rodrigo Vlain down there,"  Sleazy ordered.  "We never saw him.  We never saw anybody or anything down there we recognized.  And we never received any manifest, autographed or otherwise.  Understand?"

"Understood,"  Captain Grace answered.

"Understood?" Sleazy asked again in a forceful manner so alien to his typical temperament that each member of his aircrew responded immediately and in turn.

"Understood."

As soon as Griffin Three-Deuce-Five touched down a team of Capital Guardsmen entered the aircraft.  A humorless Lieutenant Colonel led them.  They snatched up all of Sleazy's cargo with little exchange of words and disappeared into the night.   They didn't ask about any manifest, and Sleazy heaved a sigh of relief at that.  He'd done more than his fair share of the black operations, but there was something about this run into Gomorrah that put him ill at ease.

"Boss, let's find out what the hell's been going on around here since we left,"  Captain Grace suggested.

They exited their aircraft and looked around.  Grants Pass expeditionary airfield buzzed with activity.  It looked like supplies were being staged for a major invasion.

"Holy shit.  Boss, check that out!"

Sleazy followed his crew chief's gaze.  A hulking, four-barreled, self-propelled anti-aircraft gun lumbered onto an aluminum cargo pallet and stopped jerkily.

"What d'ya think they're doing with that?"  Brady asked.

Logisticians scrambled about the anti-aircraft gun with heavy duty cargo straps and secured it to the pallet.

"Remember those supplies we dropped into Gomorrah, into the screamers' camp?" Captain Grace asked.

"No way," Brady said.  "No way they are dropping those into Gomorrah…are they?"

Sleazy watched as the logisticians ratcheted the cargo straps down tight.  Other logistics types brought out sage green bundles which could only be parachutes and laid them out on the machine's deck and flanks.

"It looks like that's exactly what they are going to do," Sleazy said.

"That gun maybe older than all of us put together," Brady began.  "But I'd be happier if it didn't make its way into Gomorrah."

"What's the big deal," Captain Grace said cockily.  "A railgun would make short work out of one of those."

"And one of those would make short work out of a Griffin, which makes it even odds."

"What's wrong with even odds?"

"When it comes to my life and the life of my crew, even odds ain't good enough for me," Brady said.  "Fair fights are for fools."

"Let's get to our quarters," Sleazy suggested.  He felt physically exhausted from the flight, and now emotionally exhausted from witnessing what was in all probability a massive airdrop of supplies into Gomorrah, on top of the black op he'd just executed.  He and his team walked towards the modest steel buildings which served as their barracks.  On the way there he got one more surprise.

Under the blaze of artificial lights, a Spartan colonel directed orders to various staff officers and runners who came and went with a sense of urgency that bordered on panic.  Flanking the colonel were what looked like two robots painted in a black with red trim color scheme that matched the uniforms of the Capital Guard.  Only the transparent face shields betrayed that men were inside these enormous suits of armor.  Brady and the other crew members gasped at the spectacle.  Sleazy found the colonel more interesting than his high-tech bodyguards.

"That was Colonel Needles," Sleazy snarled once inside the sanctuary of the crew quarters.

"Colonel Needles, the commander of the Capital Guard Regiment?" Captain Grace asked.

"No, the other one.  Colonel Brown Needles, his brother."

Captain Grace's face twisted into an expression of puzzlement, so Sleazy explained.

"Colonel Brown Needles was the garrison commander at Confluence when the mishap went down, and all those aircraft crashed with everybody onboard, only he wasn't there at Confluence.  He was transporting his mistresses across the continent and trying to sneak them back into New Sparta.  Biggest aircraft mishap in our history and the guy who's supposed to be in charge wasn't even on the scene."

"Sounds like he should have been relieved and court-martialed,"  Captain Grace said.

"He should have,"  Sleazy agreed.  "Only he wasn't relieved and court-martialed.  He's here, giving orders…  He's here giving orders.  We've got half of New Sparta down here prepping to airdrop supplies into Gomorrah, and…"

"And we just finished a black op where we picked up cargo from the outcast Rodrigo Vlain," Captain Grace finished.  Sleazy only nodded.

A day later the crew of Griffin Three-Deuce-Five were back in the air, headed south in an air armada that seemed to fill the sky.  Ahead, behind, and on either flank, Spartan aircraft held their positions in a sky train that stretched to the horizon.  At the mission briefing before departure, Sleazy recalled images of WWII, of auditoriums packed full of aircrews about to depart for Normandy, Holland, or to make the bombing runs into occupied Europe; massive air operations.  This was such an operation.

"We already dropped one of those into Gomorrah," Sleazy had told the Capital Guard Lieutenant Colonel who assigned them to drop a communications bundle.

"Good.  Now drop another one," The Lieutenant Colonel ordered.  His manner was curt, humorless, and almost confrontational.  The Capital Guardsmen who lorded over the operation treated the aircrews, logistics personnel, and ground crews the way prison screws treat convicts.  After the sun came up, Sleazy saw more guardsmen in suits of powered armor.  Each was a hulking giant in thick, articulated metal skins.  They moved amongst the crews as the aircraft were loaded.  Sleazy knew intuitively that they weren't there to provide security for the base, but to intimidate the workers.  This wasn't without reason.  When Brady saw a BRDM with a rack for anti-aircraft missiles get loaded onto a cargo pallet, he suggested sneaking over and disabling the weapon system before it was delivered into the hands of their just so recent enemy.

"It is an outdated weapon system that probably doesn't work, and those screamers certainly don't know how to operate it.  Be a dumb way to get yourself thrown in the Stockade," Sleazy said to his crew chief.

"Maybe they won't throw him in the Stockade.  Maybe they'll send him into the badlands on some black-op mission, like they did with Vlain," Captain Grace said.

"Knock that talk off," Sleazy ordered, although deep down he empathized with his crew's misgivings.   Delivering supplies to the enemy made no sense to him, especially supplies as lethal as anti-aircraft guns and surface to air missiles.  Sleazy doubted his was the only aircrew contemplating sabotaging the cargo.

The radio crackled.

"Griffin Flight Deuce-Five, we are IP Orion inbound.  Our mark is purple smoke on the deck.  I say again, purple smoke on the deck."

"Lead, this is Three-Deuce-Five.  Copy.  Purple Smoke on the deck,"  Sleazy said into his microphone.  They were back over Gomorrah.  Back over the screamers refugee camp, with its towering wooden artifact.  But this time the air was filled with Spartan Aircraft.  Ahead and behind, Griffin aircraft stretched out in a sky train that ran from horizon to horizon, each one's engines configured for forward flight.  Sleazy checked his flank where a similar sky train flew.  This one was comprised of bigger transports, jet engine powered monsters which held the vehicles bound for their all too recent enemy.   Icons appeared on Sleazy's helmet display, advertising the other aircrafts' callsigns, airspeeds, distances, and altitudes.  As he turned his head, the augmented reality built into his helmet's visor took over.  In places which should have been blind-spots because of the aircraft's fuselage, images of the outside world appeared.  Sleazy looked down.  Instead of floorboards, he saw the green and brown California fields, hundreds of feet below.

"Tally purple haze,"  Captain Grace announced over the intercom.

Sleazy saw it ahead and below.  A column of purple smoke plumed up into the sky.  Similar plumes flanked it, yellow and green, laid by the spotter aircraft that swooped into the area just before the sky trains.

"Lower the ramp.  Prepare to drop."

In the back of the Griffin, Brady dropped the cargo ramp.  All throughout the sky hundreds of aircraft followed suit.  Minutes later Griffin Three-Deuce-Five's computer chirped out an alert.  The light near the back-cargo ramp changed from red to green, and Brady and the other crew members pushed the bundle out of the back.

They were not the only ones to do so.

Sleazy banked into a climb and took the pre-determined route out of the area.  The aircraft would not fly over the refugee camp, with its squalor and poverty, and its strange wooden structure.  Instead, they made a tight turn that brought them back around to the north and home to Grants Pass.  The other aircraft followed suit, maintaining their neat and long formations.  Medium Griffins and the bigger planes all dropping their loads and making the turnaround back to the north.

Out of the corner of his eye, Sleazy caught a bundle tumbling to earth.  The augmented reality display identified it as a threat.  A red triangle appeared over the descending load, blinking red and displaying direction and distance.  Sleazy focused on that pip.  The ZSU-23 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun drifted to the ground, and   Sleazy watched it the whole way down.  It landed hard, but not hard enough to suggest it wouldn't work.  Other bundles didn't fare so well.  Brady let out a loud, "Ugh," over the intercom when a blue plastic barrel full of ammunition thundered in, its unopened parachutes fluttering behind it like olive drab ribbons.  It hit the ground an exploded, showering mixed brass in all directions.

Other bundles crashed in too, enough to suggest to Sleazy at least some small amount of sabotage took place.  Most packages landed intact, however.  After completing his turn, Sleazy saw a gaggle of refugees swarm over the deck of one of the BRDMs.  Naturally, it was the one with the anti-aircraft missiles.  The Gomorrah screamers would get their supplies.  Why they were getting supplies?  That was another mystery, and one Sleazy was not comfortable pondering.


When they returned to Grants Pass, all the aircraft commanders assembled in a hangar.  They'd been ordered to do so, and when they arrived, they found another dour-faced officer wearing the black and scarlet of the Capital Guard.  His orders came out loud and clear:  get some rest, because in twelve hours they were going back into Gomorrah to make another drop.

Sleazy left the hangar to find his aircrew.  On the way he passed dozens upon dozens of New Spartan logisticians building the next set of bundles to drop into Gomorrah.


Lions

The conference room at the top of the Chief Marshal's tower came alive with the sounds of gunfire, and the pleas of men in panic.

"You gotta help us!  There's an army of them out here.  Zillions of them!"

Between the words came the snap-snaps of carbine fire.  The chatter of a medium machine gun.  The noises came out of a speaker in the center of the polished hardwood conference table.

"It’s a massacre!  Do you hear me?  A massacre!"

Around the table sat the Chief Marshal and his closest advisors:  Colonel Lions, the two Needles twins, General Greylick, and Senator Applegate.  Lions spoke.

"One of our eavesdropper drones picked up the radio signals you are hearing.  A column of Gomorrah refugees came under attack by a small, but powerful force that shot its way right through them.  This incident occurred a couple of days ago, at a point several days' march north of where Colonel Needle's platoon was recently massacred."  Lions nodded to Hendrick Needles, the commander of the capital guard, the act a gesture of sympathy.  The speaker crackled with a warbled cry for help.

"They've got at least a dozen tanks, and they're running right through us.  Tanks! They got tanks!"

Lions continued.  "No tanks were actually involved.  We vectored a camera equipped drone over the scene after the incident to capture the aftermath.  An analysis of those images suggests that this attack could have been carried out by a fireteam sized element.  That size of a force is consistent with the size of the party we believe The Colonel's son is traveling with."

With this, Colonel Lions slide two manila folders across the table to Chief Marshal Gorman.

"In addition to his training fireteam from the Knights Course, we have reason to believe these two are traveling with The Colonel's son."

The Chief Marshal looked resplendent at the head of the conference table.  He wore his full-dress uniform.  His medals and polished Sam Brown belt gleamed.  An intricately engraved .45 caliber pistol sat in a holster at his side.  He took up the first folder.  Clipped on the outside cover was a color picture of a younger Master Gunnery Sergeant Lefranc.

"This man is a retired Spartan Knight gone missing from his retirement post recently. He was a member of the Long-Range Group for almost the entirety of his career.  He undoubtedly knows the backcountry and knows it very well."

Gorman casually flipped through the folder, then passed it off to his other advisors.  "Another Spartan Knight," the Chief Marshal grumbled.  "Can none be trusted?"  Colonel Lions ignored that statement.

"Any connection between this Lefranc and The Colonel?"  Greylick asked.

"None that we've discovered," Lions answered. Chief Marshal Gorman picked up the second folder.  Clipped to its outside was a picture of a young man with a shriveled stump for an arm.

"This second man graduated from the Operational Planners course at the same time The Colonel's son graduated from the Knights Course.  As you can see, he was born with a deformity.  We have not been able to establish any connection between this young man and The Colonel.  Both of his parents have passed.  He never went to the Knights Course."

Gorman passed the second folder without looking into it.  When Brown Needles saw the picture clipped to the outside, he scoffed.  "An old man and a cripple?  This is the Crown Prince's great conspiracy?  Ha!"

Stoic at the head of the conference table, Gorman ignored the quip.  He sat rigidly, solemnly.  He remained composed, but Lions sensed a burning rage deep inside the Chief Marshal, held beneath a thin veneer of military bearing.

"We vectored in a camera-equipped drone after the event.  Photos of the scene showed rifle, medium machine gun and submachine gun brass, and machine links, consistent with Spartan ammunition," General Greylick added.  "I think we can more than safely assume that this is our missing child."

"What happened next," Gorman asked.

A video monitor at the end of the conference table flicked to life.  Lions narrated while the video played.

"After the shootout on the road, they abandoned the truck they were driving and set out on foot.  Multiple patrols were launched from the central encampment of the new Gomorrah government to pursue them."

"The camp where they are building that wooden structure?" Gorman interrupted.

"The same," Lions answered.  "One of our video-equipped drones came on the scene just in time to capture this footage."

Gorman watched the scene unfold on the monitor, shot from a drone looking almost straight down from several thousand feet up.  A Gomorrah patrol in vehicles approached a second patrol, dismounted from their bicycles.  A few moments later, the vehicle patrol massacred the other, then drove off.

"You'll notice the two patrols are wearing different colors, the first in red and the second in black.  These patrols are all emanating out of the same refugee camp, the one with the wooden structure.  Our drone followed the vehicle-mounted patrol back to the refugee camp.  When they returned, there was no further sign of black-on-red violence."

"What about outside the refugee camp?" Gorman asked.

"Our drones have captured three other incidents of black-on-red or red-on-black violence."

Gorman leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers together.  He spoke slowly, solemnly, with a wise and authoritarian air.  "We're seeing the start of civil war among the remaining factions of the High Council and the Gomorrah government.  A Gomorrah civil war is disadvantageous to us because it will delay our policy goal of reconciliation with our former enemy."  Gorman put emphasis on the word, former.  He continued.

"We might be forced to wait for a clear-cut victor to emerge.  Or we might fall into the age-old trap of backing the weaker party.  Either way, this potential civil war in Gomorrah puts our larger policy goal at risk."

Laid out on the conference table was a map of California, marked to reveal the dates and location of the recent, significant events.  An icon marked the site of the drone strike where Needle's capital guard platoon was later massacred.  Further north, another symbol marked the location of the shootout on the road.  The Colonel's son, with his rogue's gallery of traveling companions, was heading north.  To what purpose, Gorman could only guess.  To the west stood the refugee camp, marked on the map with a figure made of wooden match sticks that looked like the lower half of a man.  Arrayed around that were icons marking all the points of black-on-red violence they knew about, and the sites of all the air drops.  The map of Northern California was getting busy.

Without thinking about it, Gorman reached into the breast pocket of his dress tunic and removed a single piece of spent brass.  Lions watched as the Chief Marshal rolled the long piece of rifle brass in the palm of his hand.  As the wheels in Gorman's head spun, his thumb rolled the brass cylinder up and down his palm.  Finally, the Chief Marshal spoke.

"Hunting down The Colonel's son is important, but not the priority.  We must prevent a civil war from breaking out among the Gomorrah factions.  Reconciliation is my policy aim, not revenge.  Colonel Brown Needles, how is the resupply effort going?"

Before his twin brother could answer, Hendrick Brown spoke out.  "I just lost a platoon of guardsmen tracking down this son of a traitor!  Killed by these same Gomorrah screamers!"

"Their sacrifice was regrettable but acceptable," Gorman responded, with all the emotion of a piece of ice.  "Through reconciliation and assimilation, we can avoid further losses of Spartan lives in the long term.  Until those great ambitions are realized, sacrifices will be required."  Turning back to the other twin, Gorman raised an eyebrow and asked the question about the sky trains again."


"The first series of major drops are complete.  We've delivered old weapons, vehicles, food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies.  We also delivered additional communications suites."

"But they have not contacted us, have they?"

"No Chief Marshal," Brown Needles answered.  "We thought these major drops would do it, that they would call after receiving all this aid.  But they have not called.  We could drop supplies into Gomorrah every day for a month, that's no guarantee they'll ever call us back.  My suggestion is we communicate to them that they will not get any more aid unless they open a channel with us."

Gorman scowled and turned to Greylick.

"Where are we at with bringing the Morning Stars online?"

"We have enough resources to maintain the sky trains into Gomorrah, or enough resources to bring the Morning Stars back online.  We don't have enough to do both.  I've arranged another launch three nights from now, but this will only allow us to bring one platform online.  It's a start, but bringing them online one by one will be time-consuming.

"One of our problems with tracking down The Colonel's soon is the lack of ISR drones relative to the size of California.  If our Morning Star fleet were back online, collection platforms would no longer be an issue."

"True, General Greylick, but any vendetta against the son cannot be a priority."

"As you say, sir.  But his very existence serves as an inspiration for any detractors you might have. The sooner he's gone, the better."

"The Gomorrah screamers,"  Lions said.  "Gomorrah's looking for them.  He's killed a bunch of their people.  When we do contact whoever is left in Gomorrah, we offer up The Colonel's son and his companions as a peace offering.  Let them do the dirty work for us."

Gorman nodded acceptance of the plan.  "Do it."

Lions' mind reverted back to the launch schedule.  He calculated the time until the launch, then said aloud, "Full moon." All the faces at the table turned in his direction.  Their expressions asked the question their closed mouths did not.

"It will be a full moon," Lions explained.  "The Morning Star mission will go the night of the next full moon."

"Why's that important?"  Hendrick Brown asked.  Lions shrugged.

"I don't know.  It just seemed important," Lions said.

"Indeed," Gorman said, not knowing what his aide was saying and not really caring either.  Gorman rolled the spent brass in his hand faster now.  Beneath the polished uniform and rigidly controlled exterior, Lions detected simmering rage in his commander.

"So, we still have not opened a diplomatic channel with Gomorrah, the Morning Star fleet is still offline, and the Colonel's son is still running loose.  We have failed to make any significant progress on anything.  We're no further along than we were at the last meeting.  What about co-conspirators?  Have we brought charges against Major K yet?"

Lions turned to the end of the table, where Senator Applegate sat.  Lions felt relieved that this question was not directed at him.  He could sense the wrath bubbling up inside Chief Marshal Gorman.  But if Applegate sensed the same thing, he showed no sign of it.  The bald, fat politician smiled amiably and answered.

"The judiciary committee will convene next week and hold a vote to subpoena Major K."

"Hold a vote to subpoena?"

"Yes, Chief Marshal."

"Next week?"

The fat man smiled broadly.  "Yes, Chief Marshal."

Lions saw the bottled-up frustration the senator did not.  Applegate was standing on a bomb and didn't even know it.  Lions braced himself.  The veneer, the stiff military bearing washed away in an instant, replaced by blind rage.

"What the fuck do you think we're doing here!" Gorman screamed.  He slammed his hand down flat on the table.  The brass shell popped out and went flying across the conference room with such force it hit a wood-paneled wall and ricocheted off.

"You don't understand, do you?  None of you understand.  You don't understand what's at stake?  What the game is that we're playing?

"The Colonel didn't wait, didn't consult, didn't follow some stupid checklist.  He wanted a bomb and just took it.  He wanted to destroy the High Council, and he did it.  He stole a nuclear bomb and just walked it into the Bay.  His son was supposed to be detained at the Knights Course.  Instead, Major K, this Lefranc,"  Gorman lifted out the picture of Lefranc and waved it in front of all his advisors' faces.  "Those two, this cripple, whoever the fuck he is, and the Crown Prince no doubt, just smuggled him out of the city.  They didn't wait, or ask permission, or follow any formal process.  They just went after it.  They planned their missions and just executed.  They made it happen.  Hell, even our outcast down south is making it happen.  And what are you doing?  Here I sit, humiliated.  The most powerful military leader in human history weighed down by your bullshit bureaucracy."

Gorman slammed a fist on the table again, harder this time.  Lions let the wave of frustrated violence roll off him, the others squirmed in their seats.

"The Colonel just acted.  His son just acted.  Major K, The Crown Prince, this Lefranc.  They act.  They don't just sit. They go out and act.  They get things done."

"Chief Marshal, I'm drafting up the notice to appear before the Senate for Major K as we speak.  After the vote, we can have him in front of a joint session in two weeks and then…"

"We don't have time for that," Gorman snarled.  "I can't just sit here in this fucking tower while you piss away time.  Two weeks to summon Major K will turn to three.  By then the Morning Stars will still be offline, half of Gomorrah will have starved to death, and Major K will have his own army and another two stolen nukes to boot."

"Sir, I assure you the legislative branch will do the right and correct thing…" Applegate tried to protest, but Gorman ignored him.

"Colonel Hendrick Brown, take your men and arrest Major K, immediately.  No warrants, no subpoenas, just do it.  Arrested or dead, I don't care which, but I want it done in 48 hours."

Hendrick Needles eyes narrowed, and his lip curled up into the thin smile of a snake about to strike.  Colonel Lions studied his counterpart carefully.  Hendrick had been waiting to get his revenge on Major K for a long, long time.  Now was his chance.

Applegate's eyes shifted nervously.  Sweat droplets beaded on his bald, pink pate.  "Chief Marshal, I assure you the Spartan Senate…"  This time Hendrick Needles interrupted him.

"As you command Chief Marshal.  I'll bring you his head on a pike."  And so great was Hendrick Needle's enthusiasm, that he stood up at attention as he spoke.  This act seemed to calm Gorman down.  The boiling rage reduced to a simmer again, covered by a lid of military bearing.

"My timeline is not the Spartan Senate's timeline, Senator Applegate."  Gorman's tone was respectful again.  "I haven't time to waste.  My enemies are running circles around me, humiliating me.  Moving faster than I am.  I am left behind. The clock keeps ticking, and here I sit with so much left to do, and so little time to do it in."

Lions understood what the Chief Marshal was talking about.  It wasn't just his time relative to his enemies, but his time left on earth.  The Chief Marshal was in his sixties, well past the point of a man's midlife crisis.  What he still wanted to do, who he still wanted to be, he only had so much time left to accomplish those things.  That was why he had Rodrigo Vlain scouring all of Doctor Chosen's old labs, searching for the doctor's secrets of longevity.  At some point, every man's ambitions, every man's quest for power is limited by man's mortal nature. But if a man could unlock the secrets of longevity, as Doctor Chosen had, if a man could defeat aging, then who could see what such a man could accomplish.  Especially when a man was already so powerful, as the Chief Marshal was.

Something in Lions' pocket buzzed.  It was his hand terminal, announcing a pre-set alert.  Lions fished out the device while Gorman continued speaking.  He stole a quick glance at the screen and froze, oblivious to Gorman's words until they stopped altogether.

"Something you want to share with the group, Colonel Lions?"

Lions looked up from his handheld terminal and spoke.

"It’s them."

And then,

"They're trying to make contact with us."

Chapter 24

Claw

Claw and the rest of Winston Indigo's lieutenants and courtiers assembled within an enormous red and yellow striped tent.  The tent smelled of mildew and heat and animals.  The faces around the canvas looked like animals.  Claw cast his eyes of features that were feline, canine, reptilian, avian.  All about were feathers, scales, tusks, fur.  One figure, it could have been man or woman, had the hard, black, shell-like casings of a giant beetle.  Only mods occupied the tent.  Claw saw not a single trad.  Claw did not underestimate the significance of this.

Winston, the mutant demigod of Gomorrah's ruin, sat upon a raised wooden dais, in a vast wingback chair upholstered in red leather.  The king on his throne, Claw thought, seated before his court.  Arrayed around the throne were heads of the Spartan Capital Guardsmen killed only days before.  Each skull had been boiled clean of any flesh.  The platoon's worth of gleaming, grinning white orbs leered out at the court.  But Claw noticed the blue-feathered swordsman who took the skulls was not in the tent.  The swordsman, whose name was Kobi, had scored the biggest, most one-sided victory Gomorrah ever won against New Sparta.  Yet, this hero was not to be found.  His absence, like the absence of the trads, was also not lost on Claw.

Piled in the center of the tent for all to see was a mountain of gear.  These were some of the spoils of the airdrops: ammunition, fuel, foodstuffs, medicine, and most importantly, the bundles of communications equipment.  The New Spartans had been generous with their gifts, but the implied quid-pro-quo was obvious.  In return for the supplies, the survivors of Gomorrah were expected to get on the radio and contact the Emerald City.  But should they?  That was the heart of the matter.   And so, Winston Indigo assembled his court to hear their council.

And at the front of the crowd stood the Oracle.  The Oracle wavered on unsteady legs.  The naked and cannibalistic Raux stood at his side, supporting him.  Murmurs fluttered across the crowd.  The Oracle gently broke free of Raux's support and presented himself before Winston on his throne.  He'd dressed the part.  He wore a silky black robe that looked brand new, with cuffs and collar trimmed in what may have been fur.  In this post-apocalyptic world, where all of Gomorrah lived off the pre-Protest leftovers, the garment truly was impressive.  One twisted hand clasped a hardwood walking stick, stained and polished to gleaming.  His implanted gadget had also been polished, and its metal body sparkled.  Claw felt self-conscious at his own appearance.  He looked like an unemployed laborer.  His only article of any note was the fine, pre-Protest, tanto bladed knife at his belt.  Claw watched as the Oracle took a small, shaky bow.  Then the twisted man began to speak.

Here we go, Claw thought.  And they did.

"All these things," the Oracle began, waving the end of his polished walking stick over the pile of supplies.  "All of these things fell from the sky.  The same sky where Doctor Chosen, our Great Father, now resides with the Earth Mother.  Even now we build a monument to him, and his sacrifice, and his gift to us."  The Oracle used his stick again, pointing in the direction where workers build a wooden statue in Doctor Chosen's likeness.  Murmurs of agreement flitted through the crowd.  Claw watched hands stoke at scale skins and fluff up tufts of feathers.

"These supplies came from the sky, delivered by New Sparta.  New Sparta was once our enemy.  They were a terror on our lands.  But now after the Great Father's ascension, they bestow us with gifts of food and medicine.  The supplies we needed most desperately were delivered to us.  Even more, they have given us the means to communicate with them."  This time, the Oracle's stick pointed at the communications bundle.  The radio and computers and cameras, and the attached instructions on how to use them.

Up to this point, the Oracle had focused his address on the assembled courtiers.  Now he turned to Winston Indigo, huge and blue on his throne.

"All things happen by the grace of the Great Father.  The ending of the old world, our gift, these supplies, and this extension of support by New Sparta. These all happened in accordance with the Great Father's will.  It is now his will that we use that radio to talk to New Sparta."

"Why should we talk to them?" A voice yelled out from the crowd. Claw did not think the Oracle planted that question, but he wouldn't put it past the twisted man.  The old man had an agenda.

"The implication is clear," the Oracle said.  "If we want more of these supplies, the food, the bullets, the fuel, the spare parts, then we must call out to New Sparta and ask for more assistance. And why shouldn't we?  It is a small price to pay for so much stuff.  In the weeks after the explosion, we stood on the shores of the bay, naked and starving.  Now, those who were once our enemies have delivered unto us the solution to all our problems."

"It will be the start of all our problems," a voice called out.  Claw was surprised to find it was his own.  He felt like bending over at the waist and vomiting.  He felt like running.  He didn't want to do this, but duty demanded it.  If left to his own devices, the Oracle would start a race war amongst the survivors of The Bay.  If left to his own devices, The Oracle would murder all the trads and leave them in a weaker state than they were already in.  Claw pushed his way through the crowd and before Winston.

"Why did New Sparta drop all this stuff on us?  What do they want?  Those are the questions we need to ask.  We should not  fall under the allure of all these material…"  Claw choked to find the word.  Finally, he spat out, "Things.  We know they want us to get on the radios and contact them.  But why?  What else do they want?  It won't stop at a single call."

"All they've asked for is a radio call.  That's a small price to pay for everything they've given us so far.  And what does it matter what price they want for this stuff or more?  Surely the price can't be too high, not when you consider that these things they've given us will solve all our domestic problems.  No more starving.  No more sickness.  No more idle vehicles for lack of tools or parts."

Claw faced away from the crowds and right at Winston.  "No nation should be so quick to resolve its internal issues, that it subordinates itself to an outside power.  This won't solve our internal problems. It will only exacerbate our external ones and put us in debt to New Sparta."  Claw spun from Winston to the assembly of monsters.  "Let us not forget who New Sparta is.  They are our sworn enemy.  Our lifelong enemy, and one consumed by greed and hate.  For generations, they have plagued us, killing our people, and destroying our cities.  Generations ago, the one they called the Hammer destroyed the City of Angels.  They just blew up the Bay and the High Council.  They left us in ruins and even still."  Claw drew his knife and pointed the wicked tanto point at the skulls arrayed around Winston's thrown.  "Even now, Spartan spies prowl amongst us.  Why, after all this hate and violence, would they just give us gifts out of kindness?"

"My colleague is a skeptic," the Oracle said with a tremulous laugh.  "He thinks the worst of all people, even the New Spartans.  Likely he thinks the worst of himself."  Some in the audience giggled at the jab, but not all.  The Oracle went on.

"It is true the New Spartans are both hateful and haters.  They showed us no love, only racism and misogyny, and greed, all part of their right-wing militarism.  But people can change.  People do change.  Love trumps hate, forever and always.  Maybe now, after all the hate and violence, the New Spartans have changed their ways.   Maybe now they seek to embrace love, and now they only need open and progressive hearts.  All they ask is that we pick up that radio and call.  Are we so blinded by our own fear that we won't reply to New Sparta's act of charity?"

"People may commit acts of charity, but nations do not," Claw said sharply.  "Nations act out of their own self-interests.  They act to put themselves at an advantage over their competitors." Claw pointed at the pile of gear with his knife.  "Our desires for more of this stuff will put us at a disadvantage to our enemy."

The Oracle made a gloating little laugh.  "Claw, you are Winston Indigo's chief logistician.  Weren't you the one always pouting and crying we never had the food or fuel or supplies to sustain ourselves these many or months?  Did you forget that?"

"Did you forget that New Sparta nuked our city and killed the entire High Council," Claw shot back.  He looked to Winston Indigo, who all this time sat as impassive as stone upon his throne, betraying not a single thought.  If Winston had leaned to a particular side during the debate, he showed no sign.  Claw made his plea directly to the mutant king.

"The New Spartans nuked our city, killed our leaders, left us starving in the wild.  Even after, Spartans roamed our lands.  Some we killed. Some still prowl about the countryside, killing our people.  The New Spartans are our enemies.  They always have been.  They always will be.  Our Great Father lived his life fighting against their corporate greed, their right-wing fascism, their hate.  He died fighting that.

"Now the New Spartans give us gifts and hint at more?   The Oracle says this is charity, but it is not.  Why does any antagonist do anything for its opponent?  They do it to achieve a position of advantage for themselves, and to put their opponent in a position of weakness.  These supplies you see before you aren't gifts.  They are part of a trap.  They are meant to indebt us to New Sparta in some way."

The Oracle coughed loudly.   When he did, Claw paused from talking, and at that moment, the Oracle made a verbal thrust.   "Claw, you say this is all a trap.  What is the trap then?  What are the particulars of it?"

"I have no idea."

"Then how can you say it’s a trap?"  The Oracle asked, playing to the crowds.  Some laughed.  Some did not.  The sides were equally split.

"I don't need to know the details of the trap to know the trap exists.  I don't need to know the specific mechanisms to know that the Spartan's do not have our interests in heart, but instead their own.  I know that, and that's all I need to know."

Claw turned back to the dais, and the throne, and Winston Indigo.  He made his final plea.

"If we accept these supplies and the further supplies promised, if we get on the radio and speak to whoever is on the other end in the Emerald City, it will be our undoing.  This stuff is not charity.   These supplies are not a gift.  This is the latest Spartan trap.  If we take this stuff, we become ensnared in whatever their next terrible ruse is, only this time there will be none of us left.  We've lost too many already; from the war, from the bomb, from the starvation after, for these pitiful infights between trads and mods.  Our High Council is gone.  Our Empire is gone.  We don't have enough left to sustain another catastrophe,"  Claw stabbed at the pile of supplies, this time not with his knife, but with his talon.

"If we accept this stuff, it will be our undoing.  The Spartans will bend us to our will, and when all is said and done, it will be the end of us."

Raux hissed like a lynx.  The Oracle swept his robes out in a flourish and made to speak, but Winston Indigo rose from his thrown, blue and massive, and the site of him moving brought a stillness over the assembly.  Winston stretched and flexed his massive, blue-skinned muscles, and then, this mutant-king of the apocalypse delivered his verdict to his court.

"Enough talk."  Winston's voice was little more than a whisper, but it filled the tent as if it were a lion's roar.  "I have heard enough.  We will take these supplies, and whatever supplies come after.  We will use them not for the Spartans' purposes, but for our own."

Winston then looked directly at Claw and spoke.  "Claw.  You will get on that radio.  You will contact these Spartan agents, and you will find out exactly what they want."



Colt


In his dream, Colt trudged up the hill.  Each step was drudgery, agony.  At the top of the hill, Colt saw his father, The Colonel, and his great grandfather, The Hammer.   The two men stood in a patch of waist-high grass, green and yellow and swaying in the breeze.  The Colonel wore his pistol and bowie knife over his hips, his carbine held easily in one hand.  The Hammer carried only his black carbine, sleek and minimalist, with no accessories.

Colt pushed harder, hiking up the hill.  His legs pumped, and his chest heaved.  As in all such dreams, he never seemed to get anywhere.  The top of the hill seemed just as far away now as it had been a hundred steps before; a thousand steps before.  One step forward, two steps forward, but the top of the hill didn't get any closer.  The father figures atop the hill spoke not a word.  The offered no encouragement.  They only looked down at Colt from atop their hill, judging him against their impossible standard.  And he felt he would never get closer.


"Wake up," Christian said softly, giving Colt the gentlest shake.  Waking up someone trained to deliver violence instinctively was a tricky business.  Lucky for Christian, Colt didn't reach for any of his weapons.  He only blinked a few times, then brought himself to fully alert, just as he had done hundreds of times in training.

"How long was I asleep?" Colt asked.

"About an hour," Christian answered.  Then he said, "C'mon, check this out."

Colt surveyed the hole they'd taken refuge in.  Their hide was atop a small rise that gave a view of the surrounding country.  High scrub around them provided concealment.  Robins sat brewing something into a pathetic substitute for coffee.  Lefranc stood sentinel with his sniper rifle.  The others stared intently towards the south.  They were actually smiling.

"Bears," Christian said enthusiastically.  "Look."

Colt looked.   A few miles distant, seven bears plowed through the scrub grass below like ships cutting through water — big beasts with thick, shaggy brown coats.

"Brown bears," Nicky-Lee said.

"Brown bears your ass,"  Lefranc said.  "Those are grizzly bears.  Look at those humps above their shoulders."

"Those are grizzly bears," Colt agreed.  There was something amazing and powerful about them, lumbering through the scrub.  They looked unstoppable, indomitable.

"Grizzly bears don't move in packs," Nicky-Lee replied.  "They're solitary creatures."

"Well these ones ain't," Ajax said.

"Since when did grizzly bears start traveling in packs?" Nicky-Lee asked.

"They've adapted," Colt answered.  "Maybe before the Protest they were solitary, now they move in packs.  They've adapted to their realities.  They're just trying to survive out here.  Same as everybody else."

Colt watched the bears lumber across the scrub in a wedge formation as perfect as even the most practiced infantry unit could assume.  They moved proud and sure, slow but fearless, like a pride of lions.  Colt imagined what it might be like to be attacked by a pack of grizzly bears.  He was sure he'd never want to find out firsthand.

Lefranc shifted his old, keen eyes from the bears to Robins and back again.  When Robins finished making his coffee, he lifted the steel cup to his lips.  Lefranc interrupted.

"In the field, the first hit of coffee goes to the senior man.  That ain't you."

Robins looked into the watery brown liquid as if some answer might be inside.  "But I made it."

"You did.  And tradition says you offer some to the senior man first."

"It's alright," Colt said, with more vigor than he felt.  He didn't want to get in on this ongoing coffee tradition feud between Lefranc and Robins, and he did not have the emotional energy for it.  Keeping his friends alive in this jackpot he'd unwillingly brought them into, the conspiracies and intrigues within his homeland, the heavy shadow of his father that he lived under, all these things drowned out trivial issues such as the field traditions of who got the first coffee.  Down below, the bear leading the formation stopped and cocked his head to one side.  The other bears stopped instantly and instinctively.  No words, no commands, no signals.  They all just halted.  They were a well-honed machine.

Lefranc called out, "Contact. West. On the hill.  Just like we thought."

The lead bear turned, and just like that, it and the other bears disappeared in the brush.  Colt watched them vanish and caught the faint sound of engines.  To the west stood another, taller, rise.  A thick copse of trees topped this one along with an old house.  It gave a commanding view of the surrounding valley.  At its base, figures scrambled out of trucks.  The distance reduced them to tiny black dots.  Ajax peered at them through a small pair of binoculars.

"These ones are black sashes.  They've got some trucks.  Too far out to see much else."

"Any red sashes," Colt asked.  A pause, and then Ajax answered.

"Nope. Just black sashes."  Ajax lowered the binoculars, turned to face the others, and grinned devilishly.

"Is it the same group that's followed us for the last two days?" Colt asked next.

"Different group," Lefranc answered.  He had his rifle up.  One eye peered through the scope.  "And we haven't seen these boys before.  This lot's bigger, but not better organized.  Lot's of arguing.  It is going to take them a while to get up the hill and search the house."

"I should have planted a few surprises inside," Christian said.

"Save your surprises," Lefranc said.

"I can always make more," Christian said.

"We know you can.  But we don't have time to stop and let you whip up some ANFO or purify uric acid.  We need to keep moving.  There are at least four other groups looking for us."

"I wonder if Gomorrah put a price on our head," Doc said sourly.

"That would be fucking awesome," Christian said.  He commenced to gyrate and do a few Elvis inspired karate moves.  Doc shook his head with disdain.

Lefranc ignored the young warriors at their games. He spoke to Colt, "This little trick will buy us some time to give these ones the slip."  

"Major K was right, again," Colt replied.

"Major K's always right," Doc mumbled.

"Who is this Major K and what is he right about," Nicky-Lee asked.  The other team members began packing up what little gear they had out and got ready to move.  Colt answered.

"Major K trains all the Spartan Knights.  He's been doing it for…"  Colt looked to Lefranc for help, but the old sniper only gave a shrug for an answer.

"He's been doing it for forever.  Part of the training is how to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance.  One of the tricks he taught us is never set up an observation post on the obvious location but set up so you can observe the obvious location.  That way, when the enemy goes searching the obvious spot, you can spot them first and stay one step ahead of them."

"It'll take them an hour to get up that hill, maybe another hour searching the top," Lefranc added.  "We can put some distance between us in two hours."

And indeed they could.  They'd been moving on foot since the loss of their truck, but moving quickly.  Their packs were also getting considerably lighter as they consumed rations and water.  But they were also looking more and more haggard.  The miles took their toll.

"This Major K sounds like a smart guy," Nicky-Lee said.

"He's not really a guy, not anymore," Doc said.  "He's a cyborg.  He lost half his body in combat.  The scientists and witch-doctors back in New Sparta replaced those parts with machines.  And he was a ball-buster.  He probably knew everything a man could know about infantry operations, but he didn't teach the lessons so much as beat them into you."

"He's as hardcore as they come," Ajax agreed.  "Belt-fed and as hard as woodpecker lips.  'The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war,'  all that Starship Troopers stuff, he believes every bit of it."

Christian nodded.  "A full year of non-stop training.  Every day out in the field.  Every day a new torture test.  And when you aren't getting crushed with tactical problems, you have to endure all his other hazing."

Now even Lefranc smiled and reminisced about his time training at the Knights Course.  "Does he still keep the guidon cased?"

"The flag furled?  Yeah, he still does that," Ajax said with half of a grin.  Nicky-Lee raised his hands in an 'I don't understand,' gesture.  Colt explained.

"Like most Spartan units, the Knights Course has its own guidon: a flag that represents the unit.  This guidon is black and white; crossed swords beneath a lit lamp.  You can figure out what the swords are for.  The lamp represents study and knowledge."

"Or so they say," Ajax interrupted.

"Or so they say," Colt agreed. "Because nobody has actually seen the guidon.  Its kept cased and furled; rolled up and stored inside a canvas sleeve."

"So basically, it’s a big stick with some canvas wrapped around it, that you have to haul around with you wherever you go,"  Christian said.

Nicky-Lee stared and said, "I still don't understand."

"To have your unit's guidon cased and furled is typically a sign of shame and dishonor," Colt explained.  "It dates back awhile.  If a military unit showed cowardice, or if its members committed some crime, they would order their colors cased."

"So, what crime did you guys commit?"

"That's the thing, we didn't commit any crime," Colt said.  "It was one of Major K's teaching methods.

"He said before the Protest, when this was all the United States, the military members of the United States took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  Not the political parties or the politicians, but the Constitution.  Do you know what the Constitution was?"

Nicky-Lee nodded.  Colt continued.

"Only, the Protest came along, and the rioting and the anarchy and all that, and the military members back in the day didn't stand up and defend the Constitution.  They just stood by while everything went to shit.  Many of them participated in the Protest and helped speed it along.  At the time, that military was the most powerful in the world and respected by the people in the once-was United States.  Had they intervened early on, they could have put a stop to things and saved the United States, but they didn't.  When a few members of the military finally did take action, it was too late.  Things were too far gone.  The United States was gone, and the best they could do was carve out New Sparta.

"Major K's lesson was that the best military training in the world was nothing without the moral courage to use it for what was right.  He could train us to fight and to kill, but that training was worthless without the will to act when it comes time to do what's right.  So he had us carry around our unit flag, all furled and cased up, to remind us of that."

Nicky-Lee stared blankly before answering.  "You Spartans don't make any sense to me."

Colt said, "We don't need to make sense to you.  Just like the coffee.  This is about us.  It is not about you."

"We need to get going," Lefranc said.  "West and south are off the table. Let's try north by northeast and then maybe we can button hook around them while they're busy on the hill."

"We should go east," Nicky-Lee said, and not for the first time.  But they ignored him.

They filed off into the scrub, staying low and out of sight, hunting and fleeing at the same time.  Christian took the lead.  He carried his shotgun in his hands and slung his carbine with its grenade launcher over a shoulder.  After they'd marched for a while, Ajax asked, "Hey Doc, what do you suppose Major K is doing now."

Doc traveled several paces before answering.

"My guess?  He's probably kicking the shit out of somebody."



Major K

Major K walked through his home; the Commandant's House on the grounds of the Knights Course.  He walked past the glass case that once displayed a slick, black carbine.  He went out the front door and onto his porch.  From there, he surveyed his command, the Knights Course, the institution he'd dedicated his life too.

It was now a ghost town, and he, its commandant.

The Knights Course trained generations of Spartan's Knights, the elite of New Sparta's forces.  Now the place was empty.  Its training areas and firing ranges stood silent.  No students occupied its grounds.  The Chief Marshal canceled its classes.  Major K's staff and instructors were also gone.  All had been transferred to other posts.  Military personnel management systems can move quickly and with a vengeance when they want to.  So it was with New Sparta.  When the Chief Marshal ordered the school closed,  the personnel officers and adjutants wasted no time issuing transfer orders to  Major K's cadre of instructors.  The Major's orders were quite different.  He'd been ordered to remain at his post, his empty, hollow post.  Stripped of students, staff, and purpose, he was left to wither and die inside this ghost command.

From the porch of the trim white house, with the sun slipping below the Pacific and casting long shadows, Major K surveyed what remained of his kingdom.  A mechanical arm, the prosthetic that replaced the flesh and bone Gomorrah took, lifted a steel coffee cup to the Major's mouth.  He sipped, then his other, real arm wiped his mouth with a folded olive drab cravat he used as a handkerchief.  He always kept the cravat for when he ate or drank, a necessity given his condition.  Half his lips were gone, and half his teeth were gleaming stainless-steel replacements.  Above the shining teeth, a camera lens occupied the socket that once held an eye.  It made the faintest whirring sounds as it focused on the empty grounds.  Major K took another sip.  Another wipe of the mouth.  Then he walked down the porch steps.

From the commandant's house, he strolled slowly across the parade ground.  The lush green grass had grown long and untidy now that there was nobody to mow it.  Major's K's prosthetic leg made the faintest of mechanical whines as it moved, the fluttering of a hummingbird's wings, nothing more than a soft background noise unless you were trained to hear it.  On the other side of the parade grounds and further down, a door creaked noisily somewhere in the gloom, pushed by the breeze.  These were small humiliations, part of the larger humiliation the Chief Marshal forced upon him.  When he ran this school, the grass was cut, no hinge went unoiled, and no door went unsecured.  The instructors led and taught, and the students trained in a crucible designed to make men into the greatest warriors they could possibly be.  And this crucible Major K designed himself.  He dedicated his life to it, the second life he'd been gifted by the miracles of robotics and medical science, the second life the Chief Marshal took away when he took away his students.

Major K knew his crimes in the eyes of the Chief Marshal were twofold.  The first crime was what he did and what he was suspected of doing.  He had not helped The Colonel in his Last March. The Colonel was a capable man.  He needed no ring of coconspirators to execute his final plan, nor would he have accepted any.  He'd undertaken his suicide mission alone; the way it had to be.  Major K had been as surprised as everyone else to learn the father had walked into San Francisco with a nuke on his back and detonated it.  The son was a different story.  Major K had been a willing participant there.  The death of Doctor Chosen and the High Council meant the death of the Chief Marshal's dreams of reconciliation and his legacy of a peacemaker.  Major K always believed warriors had moral obligations, and he would not let the son be punished for the crimes of the father.  Helping smuggle the son out of New Sparta was an act of defiance Major had participated in.  It was an act he would do again.

From the parade grounds, Major K went out to the ocean.  He could hear the waves and their rhythmic roaring.  When he got to the beach, he went to the old fortifications hidden in the grassy slopes.  Here, concrete and steel casements once held quick-firing artillery.  These had been home to shore batteries emplaced to defend the Puget Sound from enemy fleets.  But these fortifications had been abandoned long ago and their guns removed.  The course of history proved them irrelevant, unnecessary.  And so they sat empty, forgotten and abandoned, never tested by fire.  The empty casements represented the second element of Major K's crimes against the Chief Marshal.  Not what he did, but who he was.

Steel stairs ran up the side of the fort to the empty gun platforms.  Major K climbed them, sipping coffee and wiping his half-lipless mouth along the way.  At the top of the fortress, he climbed up until he could see the ocean as the last golden rays of the sunset slipped across it.  This was how the Chief Marshal wanted to kill him.  The Chief Marshal, the technologist who never appreciated or trusted the Spartan Knights, was leaving him here alone and abandoned to die in solitude.  This wasn't just hiding something away where they could be conveniently forgotten.  This was vengeful.  The Chief Marshal wanted him to feel alone.  Wanted him to feel unnecessary.  Wanted him to feel like an anachronism in this age of railguns and robots and space-based weapons.  It would have been far better to go on a Last March of his own that to remain here, rotting and aging away.  Men like Major K weren't meant to go gently into the night.  They were made to rage, rage against the dying of the light.  The Chief Marshal knew that just as certainly as he knew how to arrange ones and zeros, and thus all Last Marches had been suspended, and Major K ordered to remain at his post.

Another sip of coffee.  Another wipe of the gruesome mouth.  Major K cocked both his ears, the one he'd been born with and the electro-mechanical replacement.  To the south, firing ranges ran along the beaches.  Not long ago they rang with gunfire.  Now they roared in their silence.  Major K went back to the stairs and descended.  His one mechanical leg pumped, matching the pace of the other.  He went back across the overgrown parade ground, where countless classes of Spartan Knights formed and marched and eventually graduated.  He dedicated his life to that, to New Sparta, to training young men in the warrior's ethos.  Now that life was over, dashed by the maniacal ego perched in the Chief Marshal's high tower.  What was he to do, now that his country considered him a criminal, and a has-been, and something better off lost and forgotten?  What was he to do now that the instructions his life centered upon, hunted the son of a hero, hunted its own children, and extended olive branches to his sworn enemies?

Major K climbed back up the steps of his porch, stopped, and turned to face the night.  He looked long into that night, and in the cool, dark of the evening, he whispered to himself, "So this is how they felt when they took that first, final, step."

He took one last sip of the coffee then tossed the dregs out into the grass.  He wiped his disfigured mouth again.  Then he went back into his house, striding past the empty display case.  Not long after, the lights inside the house went out, and the grounds of the Knights Course went completely dark.


Not long after the lights went out in the commandant's house, Colonel Hendrick Needles picked up his phone and made a call.  Lions answered.

"He's in the house and just went to bed.  We're going to take him."

Lions didn't speak immediately.  He let the pause linger on the line before responding.

"Be careful."

"I've got a full squad of guardsmen in the new powered armor, and another company in support.  He doesn't stand a chance."

Lions thought about that for several moments.  The dead air hung across the connection between the two colonels, stale and ominous.

"Be careful," Lions repeated.

Needles ended the call.  He pocketed his phone and keyed his radio handset.  "Take him down," he said.  And with that, a swarm of Capital Guardsmen began their descent upon Major K's house.

Colonel Hendrick Needles was not a Spartan Knight.  If he had been, he might have noticed that the Knight Course guidon was posted on the front porch.  And for the first time ever, it was uncased and unfurled.

Link Posted: 5/25/2018 2:36:30 AM EDT
[#1]
FUCK YES!!!!
Link Posted: 5/26/2018 11:40:55 PM EDT
[#2]
Fuck yes is absolutely correct!
Link Posted: 5/27/2018 6:04:31 PM EDT
[Last Edit: DFARM] [#3]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By 2T2_Crash:
FUCK YES!!!!
View Quote



Will you let us know here when it's available on Amazon?
Link Posted: 5/28/2018 9:44:44 PM EDT
[#4]
Bravo Zulu!  You are a master in your craft and your work is always outstanding and greatly appreciated.
Link Posted: 5/29/2018 7:52:36 AM EDT
[#5]
OUTSTANDING!
Link Posted: 5/29/2018 3:44:34 PM EDT
[#6]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By DFARM:




Will you let us know here when it's available on Amazon?
View Quote
Of course.
Link Posted: 5/29/2018 4:10:24 PM EDT
[#7]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By sharkman6:

Of course.
View Quote
Can we have it yet?
Link Posted: 5/30/2018 2:56:49 PM EDT
[#8]
Link Posted: 5/30/2018 10:21:45 PM EDT
[#9]
Link Posted: 5/31/2018 12:47:32 AM EDT
[#10]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By DFARM:

Can we have it yet?
View Quote
Well, if it was all written already I wouldn't post in installments.

But, I have maybe 30,000+ words already written in addition to the 14,000 I just posted.

So be patient.

I haven't finished all the stories I've posted in the last two years, but this one is different.
Link Posted: 6/1/2018 7:45:31 AM EDT
[#11]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By sharkman6:
Well, if it was all written already I wouldn't post in installments.

But, I have maybe 30,000+ words already written in addition to the 14,000 I just posted.

So be patient.

I haven't finished all the stories I've posted in the last two years, but this one is different.
View Quote View All Quotes
View All Quotes
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By sharkman6:
Originally Posted By DFARM:

Can we have it yet?
Well, if it was all written already I wouldn't post in installments.

But, I have maybe 30,000+ words already written in addition to the 14,000 I just posted.

So be patient.

I haven't finished all the stories I've posted in the last two years, but this one is different.
I'm patient, I just wanted to do the "are we there yet" thing. Lol

I'm pretty sure I have all of your other works, so I'm excited for a new one.
Link Posted: 6/4/2018 10:05:12 PM EDT
[#12]
Well this was a good find...

I have Spartan's Last March and enjoyed it quite a bit. I'm glad that your continuing the story. I was also enjoying From the Sea. Are you going to keep that one going too?

thanks for posting this for us!

Link Posted: 6/5/2018 7:02:40 PM EDT
[#13]
Can everyone but sharkman6 refrain from posting so we all think a chapter has been posted? Thanks. Also, this is not a new chapter post.
Link Posted: 6/7/2018 12:19:30 PM EDT
[#14]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By Vaquero:
Can everyone but sharkman6 refrain from posting so we all think a chapter has been posted? Thanks. Also, this is not a new chapter post.
View Quote
Updated with Chapter 6 in the original post.

When I post updates I'll adjust the thread title to reflect.

I'd actually appreciate the reader posts and feedback, as it gives me an idea of what the readers want more of.  For example... one reader keeps asking about Nicky-Lee from the first story.  More of his story will be revealed in time.
Link Posted: 6/7/2018 1:31:25 PM EDT
[#15]


Great stuff!  Keep it comin' Shark!  
Link Posted: 6/7/2018 2:42:22 PM EDT
[Last Edit: DFARM] [#16]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By sharkman6:

Updated with Chapter 6 in the original post.

When I post updates I'll adjust the thread title to reflect.

I'd actually appreciate the reader posts and feedback, as it gives me an idea of what the readers want more of.  For example... one reader keeps asking about Nicky-Lee from the first story.  More of his story will be revealed in time.  
View Quote


Thanks for the chapter!
Link Posted: 6/7/2018 10:01:19 PM EDT
[#17]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By greyguy:
Well this was a good find...

I have Spartan's Last March and enjoyed it quite a bit. I'm glad that your continuing the story. I was also enjoying From the Sea. Are you going to keep that one going too?

thanks for posting this for us!

View Quote
From the Sea is on hold indefinitely.  I wrote myself into a hole in that I missed a plot point, and would have to undue a lot of what I wrote in order to fix it.  I also started writing that because I wanted to write but did not want to tackle this work at the time because it was just too much for me.  It was like going to mow the lawn or running to the Home Depot when you should be doing your taxes, doing minor work to trick yourself out of the real work.

All that being said, my plan for the From the Sea novella is to use it as a connector between the second and what will be the last full Sean Bastle novel.
Link Posted: 6/8/2018 7:01:02 PM EDT
[#18]
Thank you for the installment.  Your writing is a drug and I'm an addict!
Link Posted: 6/9/2018 9:03:43 AM EDT
[Last Edit: sharkman6] [#19]
New Chapter up top.
Link Posted: 6/12/2018 7:05:11 PM EDT
[#20]
Link Posted: 6/15/2018 2:57:43 PM EDT
[#21]
Just found this.  Awesome!  Thanks!!
Link Posted: 6/28/2018 3:29:29 AM EDT
[#22]
Jeopardy!- Think Music: 1960s; 1984-1997


Link Posted: 6/28/2018 6:23:08 AM EDT
[#23]
Chapter 8 is up in the original post.
Link Posted: 6/28/2018 9:19:24 AM EDT
[#24]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By sharkman6:
Chapter 8 is up in the original post.
View Quote
Thank you Shark!
Link Posted: 6/30/2018 4:09:38 PM EDT
[#25]
Thank you! Fantastic as always.
Link Posted: 7/1/2018 6:55:47 AM EDT
[#26]
damn glad you're writing again

my only request: can you break the chapters up with a bold CHAPTER X or a bunch of ______ or something? Just makes it easier to read on the board until I buy it on kindle
Link Posted: 7/1/2018 8:16:23 PM EDT
[#27]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By Sev89:
damn glad you're writing again

my only request: can you break the chapters up with a bold CHAPTER X or a bunch of ______ or something? Just makes it easier to read on the board until I buy it on kindle
View Quote
Thanks.  Your request can be honored.  Too Easy.
Link Posted: 7/2/2018 4:28:23 AM EDT
[#28]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By sharkman6:

Thanks.  Your request can be honored.  Too Easy.
View Quote
You are a gentleman and a scholar

I was looking forward to the finish of the Bastle stories.... but this is a just as good

You have a great writing style. Let us know when it drops on amazon
Link Posted: 7/5/2018 3:10:33 AM EDT
[#29]
Keep up the good work. Will buy on Kindle when ready.
Link Posted: 7/11/2018 1:14:23 PM EDT
[#30]
Jeopardy!- Think Music: 1960s; 1984-1997


Link Posted: 7/12/2018 8:56:46 PM EDT
[#31]
Moar?
Link Posted: 7/14/2018 8:35:22 AM EDT
[Last Edit: sharkman6] [#32]
Give me a week.  By them I'll have the last part of this chapter and at least one more chapter done.

With my new gig, I can't bring my laptop or anything else into work for security reasons.  I'm steady knocking down 300 plus words a day.  If I could "work at work" it would be easily over 1,000 words a day but thems the breaks.

I made a youtube channel to put the soundtrack together.  Spartan Phoenix or Spartan's Phoenix on youtube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J74ttSR8lEg&list=PLbju0LjKau8Syjv7Bx3tiA7OsYomPqYdt
Link Posted: 7/19/2018 10:00:48 PM EDT
[#33]
Next installment is up in the original post.
Link Posted: 7/20/2018 10:27:15 AM EDT
[#34]
Excellent!  Thanks for the chapter!
Link Posted: 7/20/2018 7:00:45 PM EDT
[#35]
Awesome! Can't wait for more!

When do we get to revisit Cora?
Link Posted: 7/21/2018 8:28:48 PM EDT
[#36]
Link Posted: 7/23/2018 3:31:33 PM EDT
[#37]
Awesome stuff. Thanks!!
Link Posted: 7/23/2018 8:03:32 PM EDT
[#38]
Thanks for the story. Please keep writing, quit work and write more.
Link Posted: 7/24/2018 11:17:16 AM EDT
[#39]
Good stuff!
Link Posted: 7/30/2018 10:16:50 AM EDT
[#40]
Chapter 9 is up in the original post.  Look for the dotted line.
Link Posted: 7/30/2018 9:25:36 PM EDT
[#41]
Awesome!
Link Posted: 8/2/2018 2:30:25 AM EDT
[#42]
I like the direction it's going. But I'm more excited to see what Colt and friends are going to do
Link Posted: 8/2/2018 8:09:26 AM EDT
[#43]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By Sev89:
I like the direction it's going. But I'm more excited to see what Colt and friends are going to do
View Quote
If you want to see Colt and his buddies go tear-assin' across the badlands of Gomorrah, straight up stacking bodies just like his dad did...

be patient.  There is a good chance it will happen.
Link Posted: 8/2/2018 2:09:52 PM EDT
[#44]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By sharkman6:

If you want to see Colt and his buddies go tear-assin' across the badlands of Gomorrah, straight up stacking bodies just like his dad did...

be patient.  There is a good chance it will happen.
View Quote
My body is ready.
Link Posted: 8/5/2018 10:59:58 PM EDT
[#45]
I'm about 30% into Spartan's Last March. I love it. Perfect mix of SHTF, near future stuff, and the wasteland survivor vibe. I really like what motivates the Colonel. He has a mission and he will see it through at all costs. I also, like how vivid and detailed the scenes are even if they are violent and twisted. I can literally play it out in my mind while I am reading. The vividness of the violent acts the bad guys commit really make the reader hate them.

If you need anybody to do a Cover for book two let me know. I do graphic design work and would do it for free.

Keep it up.
Link Posted: 8/7/2018 4:53:30 AM EDT
[Last Edit: Sev89] [#46]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By sharkman6:
If you want to see Colt and his buddies go tear-assin' across the badlands of Gomorrah, straight up stacking bodies just like his dad did...

be patient.  There is a good chance it will happen.
View Quote View All Quotes
View All Quotes
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By sharkman6:
Originally Posted By Sev89:
I like the direction it's going. But I'm more excited to see what Colt and friends are going to do
If you want to see Colt and his buddies go tear-assin' across the badlands of Gomorrah, straight up stacking bodies just like his dad did...

be patient.  There is a good chance it will happen.
*sploosh*

I'm ready
Link Posted: 8/10/2018 12:00:13 PM EDT
[#47]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By Smithy:
I'm about 30% into Spartan's Last March. I love it. Perfect mix of SHTF, near future stuff, and the wasteland survivor vibe. I really like what motivates the Colonel. He has a mission and he will see it through at all costs. I also, like how vivid and detailed the scenes are even if they are violent and twisted. I can literally play it out in my mind while I am reading. The vividness of the violent acts the bad guys commit really make the reader hate them.

If you need anybody to do a Cover for book two let me know. I do graphic design work and would do it for free.

Keep it up.
View Quote
IM sent
Link Posted: 8/14/2018 10:11:29 PM EDT
[#48]
Chapter 10 is up in the original post
Link Posted: 8/15/2018 11:33:44 AM EDT
[#49]
I have changed my mind.  I don't want to see the group tear assing around the wastes stacking bodies, I want to see them go stomp a mud hole in the swamp creatures back in Seattle. (with Nicky-lee along to help)
Link Posted: 8/15/2018 4:38:10 PM EDT
[#50]
The tension is building.  Nice work as usual sharkman.
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