The OSTOD, OptiScan Tech On Duty, turned from the oversized multiscreen long enough to call out, “Hey, Sean! We got something!”
“Oh, yeah?” The skinny redhead didn’t bother to lift his nose out of his notes. “What?” The calculations couldn’t be right. They simply couldn’t. Maybe if he–
“Dude! Seriously! Get your scrawny Irish tuchas over here! You gotta see this!”
“All right, all right. Keep your yarmulke on.” Not that Schem Baisert wore a yarmulke, but ethnic digs helped relieve the boredom. A little. They were getting stale. He definitely needed to dig into the archives, come up with a new few. His friend was holding his own these days, a revolting situation if ever there was one.
He took his time, stretching, lifting his glasses so he could rub his eyes. The view from their seventy-second story window hadn’t changed. He was surprised to see it was dusk already, getting dark earlier than usual with the storm front moving in from the west. The intact but lifeless buildings of downtown Denver mocked their creators, rotting flesh and bone being all that was left after the neutron bombs had done their work.
Elsewhere, outside of that central portion of the city, few buildings remained standing. Except for the Devil’s Dildo, of course. Nobody was taking this place down. The Architect had promised them. He had been right.
“Numbnuts, you ain’t even breathing hard.”
“So, whatcha got?” Probably a couple of rabbits humping. Not that he could blame the guy for getting excited over the littlest things; pulling an OSTOD shift was always boring enough to put a man’s cheek muscles to sleep. He pulled up a chair and–“Holy crap, Schem, are those real?” At the far end of the Scanner’s range, where the tall buildings began, four riders were coming up the on ramp. Living people! On freaking horses!
“Can you zoom it in any more?” The light was fading fast, but there was no mistaking what they were seeing, the first living men outside of the Conoco Phillips building since last December.
“Not many tweaks left…there.” The image jumped at them, the little column filling the wall screen. “Shit, Sean…I believe the two in the middle are women!”
“Yeah,” the little Irishman breathed, his pants suddenly tight. “They are.” Eyes glued to the screen, the OSTOD and the HOE (Head Of Engineering) stared until their eyes burned. Blinking was out of the question. It would be pitch dark in minutes. Which wouldn’t have mattered if the storm hadn’t been nearly on top of the riders, but not even the Architect’s top of the line equipment could penetrate a squall.
“Man,” Schem muttered, “those are…they’re like something right out one of the old sci fi movies.”
“Science fiction, dude. The fans hate that sci fi term.”
“Pork you, too. They do, don’t they? What’s that spotted horse in the lead called?”
“A pinto. Man, don’t you know nothing? Two points shy of a two hundred I.Q., graduate from M.I.T. at seventeen, and you don’t know a spotted horse is a pinto? Or a paint, some of those horse idiots swear there’s a difference.”
“When did I ever have time to study up on horse colors? But look at the guy. Pay some freaking attention before we lose light. Look at him. He’s–”
“Yeah, old, but…would you want to run into that yahoo in a dark alley?”
“Dude, Yahoo has been out of business for more than fifty years. Get a grip.”
“Suck my fruit plate. Are you even paying attention?”
Sean Flannery snickered. “Gotcha. Of course I’m paying attention. I agree; the guy’s one of those long lean cowboy types. If we’re talking dark alleys, though, the rider at the rear looks like the baddest of the bad, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah. I guess he does. Ugly horse. Now, when we take them, I get the blonde girl. Rip those jeans right off her, oh yeah.”
“Uh huh.” Flannery had a touch of the second sight, which his coworker did not. Chills suddenly rippled up and down his bony spine, alerting him to danger. “You can have her. That’s if the Architect says we can scoop them up, and if he doesnt’ take her for himself, and if half a hundred other guys who outrank you by a mile decide to let you have sloppy seconds. And if the Shaman can set the hook.”
Deciding it was getting too dark to make out any more details, swing shift OSTOD Schem Baisert tapped the console, pulling back from the close-up. The system was recording it all anyway; all he was required to do was notify the Architect…eventually.
“What do you think?” His question was serious, his bantering tone gone. “Think Wong will give the Go signal?”
“Impossible to say. The West didn’t understand the Chinese even back when they were halfway normal; how alien are they this past century, since the one child policy quit pissing around and became iron law enforced by execution?”
“Yeah, I know. You grew up with three brothers and two sisters. There are eight in my family. It’s like the Bree Hanson poem says.”
“Poem my ass.” Sean laughed, blue eyes twinkling. “Big Kate added music, had a hit song with it. Made it to number two on the charts,” He fired up his Irish tenor voice, hoping the Architect hadn’t been lying to them when he’d said work stations weren’t being monitored from the one hundredth floor.
When your grow up with your parents but the culture’s not the same
You’re a Han Chinese with nothing but the government to blame
The people with the power let you have a Dad and Mother
But you never had a sister and you never had a brother
The early studies showed you selfish and completely insecure
Though the people making comments scorned the findings, that’s for sure
It does not take a rocket scientist to know and understand
Without uncles, aunts, or cousins, you grew up a different man
It doesn’t mean you came out stupid; you’re as brilliant as can be
But you don’t trust, you’re not trustworthy, you’re a selfish entity
You’re big on risk aversion and you like to play it safe
In a deadly confrontation you might up and run away
So those of us who grew up in a culture of extended family
Can never comprehend you single children from the banks of the Yangtze
When you grow up with your parents but the culture’s not the same
Your a Han Chinese with nothing but the government to blame
Please don’t see me as a racist when I print these simple lines
We’re both products of our cultures and the products of our times
And at least the rate of incest should be down in China, see
If nothing else, for simple freaking lack of opportunity
In his combination suite on the one hundredth floor, Jim Wong, PhD, glanced at the coming night without really paying it any attention. There were numbers to consult, one of his daily routines, an expression of the extreme OCD from which he suffered. His round, almost chinless head jutted forth at a forty-five degree angle on the thick neck he’d inherited from his mother. Even standing, his neck was never vertical. A sentient turtle thrusting its head out of its shell, determined to make its slow, methodical way from point A to point B; that was Jim to a tee.
Population of the Wong Building, crassly renamed the Conoco Phillips Building in honor of the oil company that financed ninety percent of the original construction: 3,042.
Demographic breakdown: 1,770 men between the ages of 18 and 50. 1,036 women between the ages of 18 and 35. Last but not least, 236 Little Emperors, children under the age of majority but endowed with stellar intelligence, none of them less than 140. In truth, to possess no more brain power than that was to be scum, the bottom of the barrel in the building. Racial mixture: 16 Chinese, 3,026 Other.
Thirty-six years old, in the prime of his life yet frustrated to the depths of his being, the Architect stared at the numbers as if he could change them by the sheer intensity of his gaze. How had it come to be, only sixteen Chinese? True, they were all highly placed, from his own position as Emperor of the Mountain on down through the lowest of his people and the only Chinese woman aboard, Sue Li, who oversaw the distribution of foodstuffs with an iron fist, never mind the velvet glove. But so few!
It should have been his greatest achievement. He had done as his superiors had asked, studied in America, emigrated officially, become a valued citizen.
A mole, an architect of towering talent who went forth to prepare the way for the People’s Republic. The commission to design the building had been magically approved, the obstacles being magically removed by means he did not need to know about. Three hundred and twenty acres of prime real estate in Wattenberg, Colorado, had been purchased. Homes and businesses were razed, ground was broken, and the plasteel tower sprouted from the earth, two hundred feet to a side at the base. One hundred stories soaring into the sky, eighty stories delving downward, penetrating bedrock. State of the art shielding protected the Wong Building’s computer circuitry, including the surveillance equipment that allowed Jim Wong to spy for his masters without being detected. Great minds from all walks of life were recruited to staff the various departments.
The building could easily withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, EMP blasts, fires, floods, and more. Attempting to crash a fuel heavy jetliner into the tower would accomplish nothing but the destruction of the plane. From the deepest subbasement floor to the hemispherical cap at its sky-piercing peak, Jim Wong’s masterpiece was unsinkable. All the media acknowledged this, even those who made snide remarks on the side about the Titanic.
Wong and his baby were ready.
And then disaster struck. The assault by his people on the arrogant Americans at Colorado Springs backfired. Who could have foreseen that such a decadent government would ruthlessly kill hundreds of thousands of their own in order to rout the Chinese troops?
War had come, but it had not brought him the thousands of Chinese nationals he’d been promised. The building stood practically empty, a mere three thousand residents instead of the thirteen thousand for which he had planned. He was, as a result, isolated, an only child still.
And it had all happened before the protein lockers could be stocked. Grain they had in abundance, rice and wheat, millet and barley. Produce flourished in the hydroponic farms under full spectrum lighting. Water piped directly from the aquifer was no problem, the wells hidden, completely unknown to the authorities. When the City of Wattenberg ceased to exist, when its water mains were broken and the reservoir depleted, the building barely noticed.
But they had no meat. Beefsteak tomatoes are not beef.
Sighing, a luxury he seldom allowed himself, the Architect touched the control panel embedded in his shirt collar. He spoke into the air. “Have the Shaman come to my office immediately. I’m approving the scoop.” Four healthy horses for meat, two men to add to the slave labor battalion, two females young enough to breed…yes. He’d made the right decision. He would take the blonde if she was not too ugly when seen in person; he had always wanted one of those. Warren Duan, perhaps, for the other female. Duan had done well, crushing the last rebellion, the crazed fools who tried to go outside without authorization. Yes. He deserved a reward.
The monocle was useless. Cloud cover had prevented the unit from recharging as we rested during the day; driving rain did the rest. I slipped the headband off, being careful not to let the wind take it, and stuffed it into a coat pocket. Returning it to the saddle bag would be a fool’s effort; the entire contents of the bag would be soaked in seconds.
We had our slickers on and snugged as tight around our faces and wrists as possible, but if my experience was any example, we weren’t walking our horses up I-25 through Denver; we were swimming. The wind was fierce, whipping this way and that, though mostly from the left, rolling down the east front of the Rockies. The horses, I was guessing–not that I could see as far forward as Moon’s head–had to be clopping along with their left eyes shut tight against the storm, managing to follow the white line on the pavement more by instinct than anything else.
Anyone else would have called a halt, but to what end? We might find ourselves in even worse trouble, were we to seek shelter. Shelters in the big city are places where the homeless huddle, waiting for unwary travelers to wander by as the ambush hunting rattlesnake waits for the unsuspecting rabbit, rat, or mouse to come within striking distance of its fangs.
We must suffer the fangs of the storm, and that was that. If none of the lightning bolts hit us, if none of the horses stumbled or went blind, we would survive. Cold, miserable, and wet, but we would survive.
Although we might not want to. At times like these, it was not difficult to envy the dead.
Still, as I told myself for the thousandth time, the storm was our friend. It hid us from covetous eyes, from the eye behind a rifle with a night scope, from the homeless, from anything and everything except the odd overpass collapse. Amazingly enough, there were none of those; whatever had removed the people of downtown Denver from the equation had left the infrastructure intact. Neutron bombs, had to be, though we’d heard no news of such being used.
Not that the news, in those final desperate times, was anything to brag about.
The others, at least, were not overly hungry. We had been wrong about the length of time the smoked pike and other rations would last. Six days they had done, but not seven. Tea, yes, we still had a supply of that, a fortunate thing as my supper had consisted of nothing else. Take your share, they had urged me, Cass and Tori and Tasta all three, but I had declined. I have fasted many times over the years. One night, or even a day or two, will not harm me. I started this mission at 182 pounds. By the inches I can still pinch, I’m around 170 now. I can function as low as 140 pounds. I know; I’ve been there. Besides, I will be focusing on a spiritual exercise all the way through Concrete Canyon, probably until first light, and my spiritual techniques work best on an empty stomach.
All of which was true, though if there’d been enough left in the supply bags, I’d have eaten, and gladly.
I had planned to use an invisibility technique. I had not planned on calling in a storm to hide us. Sometimes my spiritual skills are a little too effective.
Wherever Moon went, the others followed, but not even the pinto could keep himself perfectly oriented at the bottom of the sea. I lost count of the times he drifted to the right, pushed by the wind and rain, an outboard hoof striking dirt to tell him he was starting to leave the highway. Each time it happened, he and I managed to force ourselves back to the left, to the center of the road, searching for the white line that could be seen only when lightning flashed, and then but briefly.
All sense of the passage of time left me. I cannot imagine it was any better for the rest of our party…but at length, the rain slackened, the wind died down to little more than a breeze, and we knew we were through the worst of it. It was around midnight, judging by the position of the moon. The clouds were breaking up, scudding across the sky. I had no idea where we were, except that the tall, silent structures of downtown Denver were behind us; to either side of the freeway, the familiar sight of demolished buildings held sway.
I had of course lied about my ability to go without food. Not technically; everything I’d said to my friends was the literal truth. But there were omissions. I had left out a few facts, such as the fact that I don’t get hunger pangs, I get cramps, starting small and then building steadily, and the fact that I get dizzy at times. These symptoms usually pass…eventually. But they can take their own sweet time doing it. I gritted my nonexistent teeth against the pain and rode on, hoping Tori would not notice anything wrong. Riding right behind me, she could not see my face, but the girl knew my body language.
Hopefully, the slicker would disguise some of that until the cramps passed.
This too shall pass. I’m no Christian, but if those words are not the greatest in the entire King James version of the Bible, they’re close. The night passed. The GI tract anguish passed. And then there was light.
Not the blazing light of sunup, but the first gray light that lets a day-oriented creature know he has survived another night, where the monsters roam and nightmares come to life. It can be deceptive, that first light. Raiders from time immemorial have chosen that time to attack, knowing that their chosen victims will have their guards down at precisely that time. I did not let my guard down, did not listen for the whistle as the rodeo riders say. Instead, I became more alert, my eyes working to pick out objects farther on down the highway, farther out to the sides…and I saw it.
The Devil’s Dildo still stood.
The massive obelisk, saved from classic beauty only by the ridiculous domed cap architect James Wong had insisted upon, stood more than a thousand feet high, so close that it already strained one’s neck to seek the top. It was said the windows were bulletproof, the walls of synthetic plasteel so durable that if a small one kiloton nuke was set off at its base, it had a fifty-fity chance of surviving.
It had obviously survived the war so far.
I’d driven past it before, of course, but that was in a motorized vehicle at 75 miles per hour. It was not the same as approaching the thing on horseback, inching along under its soaring and somehow malevolent eye. I like obelisks in general, but I had never liked this one, and though I did not know precisely why, I trusted my gut. Something was off about this place.
There was a busted overpass practically in front of the building. In the growing light, I led our party down the off ramp in total silence except for the jingle of bits and the sharp clack of steel shod hooves striking concrete.
At the crossing, we saw him.
With only the freeway intervening, the Devil’s Dildo aka Conoco Phillips building looming on the far side, we stopped to consider. On this side, there was a park, green grass wet from the rain, catching the long rays of the early morning light in a million crystal shards, every drop of water on every blade of vegetation adding up to form a blanket of sharp, small, glittering flashes. There was a stone fireplace, park benches, a table. Beyond the picnic area, trees of a species I did not recognize rose majestically, welcoming us, inviting us to rest and water our horses at the duck pond. There were even ducks, quacking as they searched for their breakfast. We might have made a couple of those ducks our breakfast, were it not for needing to find cover for the day.
And there was a man. A Native American by the look of him, a full head of graying hair tied back in a ponytail. He had a fire going in the fireplace. A kettle hung from a tripod, the base of the vessel licked by the flames. He watched us as we watched him, his face impassive yet not unfriendly.
He called out. “Coffee’s about ready,” he announced cheerfully. “You got any salt, to settle the grounds?”
I didn’t respond immediately. Instead, a flip of my beckoning fingers brought the others up beside me. There was a span of something like sixty yards between us and our presumptive host. I spoke softly, not moving my lips much in case the Native was a lip reader. “Cass, wherever I position myself, you get to where you can watch my back and I’ll watch yours. Tasta, I hate to say this, but you’re our taster.”
Cass simply nodded, his eyes scanning for danger. If there was an ambush, this man would be bait. The former deputy sheriff was another matter. She swallowed hard. “Poison, you think?”
“Drugs, more likely.” Poison would kill the girls before they could be raped properly. There are people out there who enjoy sex with the dead, but they’re in the minority.
“What about me?” Tori’s blue eyes were pleading, the lines around her mouth tight.
“You’re with me. Stay to my left, leave my shooting hand free.” There was one other thing. It might look ridiculous, but it might throw the enemy off, too.
How did we know this hospitable man was an enemy? Simple. He was a stranger. We were four, two of us sizeable men, all four of us heavily armed, yet he dared face us alone and apparently without weapons.
Without dismounting, I reached down to release the hand and a half sword’s scabbard from its place under the left side stirrup, slipped the sword belt over my head and left arm so that the long blade rode crossdraw style, and eased Moon on into the park.
We stepped down, Cass taking Moon’s reins, the girls hanging on to their own mounts. There would be no hobbling here, no slowing things down if we needed to move out suddenly, but the animals really did need to drink a little water, crop a bit of grass.
“Salt we got,” I said, handing our host a small baggie of Hain’s.
“Wakan Tanka comes through again,” he said, smiling as he lifted the kettle from the tripod and set it down on a flat rock. Lifting the lid–with his bare hand, I noticed–he deftly sprinkled perhaps a quarter teaspoon of salt into the bubbling brew. Cowboy coffee, the best.
“You’re not Lakota,” I guessed. Wakan Tanka is the Lakota term for the Great Spirt, but everybody and his kid had taken to using it. “Blackfoot?”
“Ah.” The Bloods are a separate tribe, but part of the great Blackfoot Confederacy. “Káínawa.”
He hadn’t looked down at all, yet he definitely brightened at that. “You know them?”
“A little.” I shrugged. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was from Alberta. Lived on the Rez for a time. Said the Káínawa women were worth stealing.”
He laughed. Native Americans have a sense of humor nobody else can match. “Some of them are. Some of them are not worth taking as gifts.”
It was my turn to chuckle. A hunch hit me, and before I could second guess myself, I spoke. “Who has the knife at your back?”
“It is that obvious, eh?”
“I knew you would not be taken. The one they call the Architect in that Devil’s Dildo, he calls all the shots. Name of Wong. They say he designed the place.”
I nodded. “According to the news in 2101, he did. If that’s James Wong.”
“The one and the same. Turtle Man, we call him. Looks like a turtle sticking his head out of the shell, afraid somebody will come along and cut him up for turtle soup. He is a strange one.”
“He holds the knife?”
“My family. I do what he says or they die. I am not ready for them to die yet, though my wife sometimes pushes the envelope.”
We were all gathered, horses strung out on a picket line that would take seconds to dismantle, even less to leave behind. “Tasta,” I said, indicating the coffee.
“It is not drugged,” he assured us. My second wife had batsonic hearing like that.
“Even so,” I replied, and he nodded.
Tasta sipped her drink, careful not to scald her tongue. The girl had courage. We would wait a while, though, before we drank ours. “I’m Harrison,” I said, “that’s Cass, this here’s Tori, and the woman holding our fate in her hands is Tasta.”
“Sleeping Bear,” he replied, touching his chest. Neither of us offered to shake hands. Some Indians I know are okay with that, but others are not. Besides, it’s difficult to draw a weapon while holding another man’s hand.
“Sleeping Bear? A good name, that. You earned it?”
“I was twelve years old. On the Reservation, my mother did her best, but she worked at the casino, could not watch me all the time. One winter day, I hiked out in the snow, found a cave with a bear in it, hibernating. Poked the bear with a stick. Lived to tell about it.”‘
I couldn’t help it; I was grinning ear to ear. “That sounds…like something I might have done.”
Tasta didn’t seem to be suffering any ill effects. I poured myself a cup and took a seat across the picnic table from Sleeping Bear. “Your back is to the Devil’s Dildo for a reason?”
“A good reason. I did not see your lips move.”
“My back is not to the building.”
“Would you like to hear the plan to snare you and your people?”
“I am to convince you the people in the building are friendly. They have food they will share. There are beds and showers and all the amenities of so-called civilized life. You have been through one of the worst rainstorms in a long time, you are tired, cold, wet. You will follow me to the building with joy in your heart.
“Then, once inside, you will be first separated from your horses. They will be well cared for, fed all the grain they can eat, given all the water they can drink. Until you are out of sight. Then they will be slaughtered. The people in the building have grain, but they do not have meat.
“Then you will be overpowered. You do not need to be concerned out here; there are no guns in the building. But there are rooms with gases that knock you out, put you to sleep. When you wake, you will find yourselves stripped of your belongings, the men sent to labor as slaves, the women kept as toys and breeders. It is a foolproof plan.”
I couldn’t help myself. I really liked this man. “So, you are their Judas goat.”
He knew the reference. “I am their Judas goat.”
“Something tells me…have you done this before? Because, you know, you’re really not very good at it.” We were twinkling at each other, very much on the same page.
“I really suck at it,” he agreed, “but the first time, it worked. The people were mean. Arrogant. Nasty. They deserved what they got. I led them to their fate gladly. For the sake of my wife and my son, I will do so again, gladly.”
“But not with us.”
He shrugged. “It would not succeed with you. Besides, I had a dream. Also, you are not my enemy.”
With the coffee cup tipped to my lips, masking my mouth from the watchers in the Dildo, I asked, “Is there no escape for you?”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. When we first came, there was a reason to stay. Some of our people worked here. I was their spiritual advisor–not a shaman as they call me, but a medicine man.”
“I know the difference.”
“That does not surprise me.” His gnarled fingers–he clearly had arthritis, though he couldn’t have been more than sixty years of age–plucked a drawstring bag of tobacco and a packet of papers from his shirt pocket. I watched as he rolled the cigarette, sealing the paper with his own spit in the time honored tradition of the veteran smoker. I carried a lighter, always, and lit the cigarette for him. The pure, gentle bliss of nicotine addiction (before the COPD or the cancer takes hold) flowed through his body. He exhaled through his nose, content.
“So…your people, except for your family, are no longer there?”
“They might be there. They disappeared one night. I think they might have been turned into protein.”
Shades of Soylent Green.
“You need a weapon.”
“I have been thinking,” he informed me with a glint in his eye that bespoke murder, “but every moment I am inside, I am watched. There are workshops in there with steel lying around. A knife would be best, quiet that way. Bloody but quiet. But I am not allowed near the shops. I cannot find a knife outside and take it in. There are metal detectors at the doors. Do you know why a knife would be best?”
I waited, sensing the question was rhetorical.
“A knife would be best because not only would I need to kill my fellow human being, or maybe two of them, but I would need to cut off the hand of a door guard. The locks are keyed to the guard’s palm print.”
Hmmm…. Sleeping Bear was clearly hoping I could come up with something, but in a detached way. Such immediate trust in a total stranger? Perhaps I was not so strange; perhaps he had seen me in his dream. But a knife….
“Let me check our packs.” I got up and meandered over to the horses, putting on my best not-a-care-in-the-world act as I did so. It wouldn’t do to let the watchers in the Dildo see what I was up to, but fortunately the object of my interest turned up in Tori’s right hand saddle bag, the palomino blocking the building’s view of my hands. I returned to the table.
“How much trouble will you be in when Wong realizes you failed?”
“Plenty.” His mouth quirked up at the corners. “Unless you beat me to a bloody pulp and rob me. Take my moccasins, take my shirt, take my coffee pot. Something.”
“How about the coffee itself. The stuff in the can, that is. You didn’t use it all?”
“No. That is a good idea. Beat me up and take the coffee. There is almost half a pound left.”
“Some would kill for that.”
“Some have,” he said soberly. I chose not to inquire further.
“Cass, we’re going to jump Sleeping Bear here, in just about another minute.”
“Seems a piss poor way to repay his hospitality.”
“I like it,” Sleeping Bear said.
With that, I jumped up and began cussing the medicine man out, waving my arms, working myself up to a frothing good rage. Making sure the watchers in the building could see my face, of course, and especially my eyes. My act was so realistic, the power of the hostility thrown at the Indian so violent, that he, too, got up, backing away in fear. I vaulted over the table, pushed his chest and swept his legs at the same time, took him to the ground. He couldn’t have stood more than five-six. His body was almost frail.
Mine was not. I scrambled with him on the ground, worked myself behind the man, locked in a standard choke hold, and choked him out for real. It took a little while, rendering him unconscious, but his struggle weakened rapidly. I rose to my feet, then bent over his prostrate form, my right fist rising and falling, crashing against his face.
In a word, I beat him half to death.
“We just going to leave him like that?” Cass’s voice was concerned. The girls weren’t saying a word; they’d never seen me go into rage mode, not even when I was killing people, and they wanted no part of it.
“Exactly like that,” I snarled. “Grab the coffee.” I fairly leaped into Moon’s saddle, and we were out of there, heading north across the park green at a steady trot. I didn’t look back once, though Tori told me later she did, relieved to see Sleeping Bear beginning to stir before we got too far away to know.
It was midmorning before we found a suitable camping spot, some eight or ten miles farther on. Not until the coffee was on did I realize the big diamondback was coiled just a few yards away, enjoying the shade under a small stand of sagebrush. Cass blew its head off with his .30-30 and set to cleaning the viper without further ado. We would not go hungry this day after all; the critter was an Eastern, a species the field guides still weren’t admitting had made it this far west. Nearly six feet long and heavy bodied like all rattlers, a good forty pounds of meat once you got the bones out.
I wouldn’t have called it yummy, especially with nothing else to spice it up, like chili or some such, but it would do. It wasn’t Soylent Green, but it was protein. My stomach cramps, which had begun to make their reappearance, settled back down.
The girls were scraping our mess kits clean, getting ready to wash them in the little stream we’d found, when Cass popped the question. “How bad did you hurt him?”
“Not as bad as it looked. When I choked him out, that’s all it was, no punching or kicking or nerve damage. When I was pounding on his face, I was pulling the punches–hope it didn’t look that way–”
“It didn’t,” he assured me. He should know, having been in a ton of fights himself.
“Basically, I was trying to make it look good for the watchers and at the same time use my body to shield what my left hand was doing. Bottom line, when he woke up, he found out he had a broken nose, blood running strong, which makes it all look believable, and he also had Tori’s obsidian knife tucked in under his shirt. In its sheath, of course.”
“Volcanic glass. Brittle, but sharp as hell. It’s old school knife material, and it should slip right by the Dildo’s metal detectors. Tori got it as a present from her aunt when she was thirteen. Liza knew her niece was interested in ancient artifacts like that. Bought it from some tourist trap traveling carnival booth. Seller claimed it was real. It might have been for all I know.”
“It was,” Tori assured me. She and Tasta had slipped back into camp, sneaking up on me slick as a whistle. “You gave it to Sleeping Bear?”
“I did, honey.” Without asking, but I didn’t dare apologize; it would definitely not fit the Master/slave paradigm.
“You are?” I was surprised…and impressed.
“Damn betcha. Can’t think of a better use for it, can you?”
“There you go.”
I reached out, gathered her in. “You,” I stated firmly, “are one helluva woman.”
She blushed to her hairline. “Think we’ll ever see him again?”
“Doubtful,” Cass put in. “If it were me in his place, I’d take my wife and boy and hit for Canada. Get back to his own people.”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “Whatever’s left of them.”
We were a pretty somber bunch for the rest of the day. We didn’t know many who hadn’t lost people since the war started. Plus, we were already making plans to detour wide around the Devil’s Dildo on our return trip.
That was encouraging. It meant we thought there would be a return trip. Which was no sure thing when you thought about it. Day after tomorrow, good Lord willing and the crick don’t rise, we’d be into Wyoming, through whatever was left of Cheyenne, on the final stretch toward Highland West’s headquarters at Casper. The heart of Indian Country.
Perhaps, I thought drowsily, I’d best get some sleep while I could.