Three dozen of us escorted Chang, Sora, and their remaining “army” of forty men, all on horses gifted to the Empire remnant as a gesture of good will. The War Leader had promised to present my proposition to his Emperor in good faith. I’d never doubted he’d make that promise. If he hadn’t, he’d never have left MAP territory alive.
As it was, I was gambling a bit. It was entirely possible that the Emperor would reject our terms as ridiculous. It wasn’t like we could jaunt off to Hooded Cobra territory and punish him if he didn’t. In the words famously attributed to twenty-first century U.S. President Donald J. Trump, “Let’s wait and see.”
At the border, we returned weapons to Chang and his group of survivors. To each man, one carbine of Hooded Cobra manufacture, ten cartridges, one belt knife. For the party as a whole, three camp axes, three short shovels, and two camp saws. They were cautioned not to load the rifles until they were well out sight. We watched them go. Every Empire back was ramrod stiff, though whether from shame, pride, or the expectation of a last minute bullet in the back, none of us could tell. The sun was shining, though it looked like rain might be in the offing. Early flowers dotted the prairie, hinting at the lush bouquet to come.
From there, we headed back up the Fort Steel road, eventually hooking left, toward Elk Hollow. Considering how little they had to work with, the refugees had accomplished a lot. Most of the winter’s leanto shelters, already replaced by rough cabins, were being used to store firewood. A sizeable smokehouse was in operation, curing venison, elk, and even one stray moose that would not normally have been seen in these parts. Fort Steel caretakers, the volunteers who’d followed the late Weasel Compton south, talked of staying here long term. There was nothing for them back at Steel, they admitted, while quite a few of the former Hooded Cobra camp whores were worth, ahem, salvaging.
The fact that fully half of the ex-prostitutes were young and attractive, not to mention sexually experienced, had nothing to do with it. Surely.
“Can we just stay right here?” They asked. I had to tell them that was a maybe and it was not up to me. Grunt stepped in, explaining that they’d landed within–although barely within–the border of Fort 24 territory. The 24 City Council would have to approve a land grant but, surprise to all of us, he himself, Big Jake, would not be there to help present their case.
“It should be a slam dunk,” he said, “but you’d best not be counting your chickens before they’re hatched. I’m retiring, folks. Couple of our volunteer soldiers have a place up in the foothills, edge of the forest, actually in Roost territory. They’ve invited me to join them and I’ve accepted. I’m worn out, you know. Figure I’ve earned the right to take life a little easier.” He did not mention his wife’s grave at Fort Steel or his stalwart sons.
“If not you, Mr. Sedlacek, then who?” A brown haired woman in her thirties braced him.
“That would be me.” Orville “Double Aught” Overland stepped forward, looking pleased with himself. “I still have my Captain’s commission in the Sentinels at 24. The Major here has already released me and my boys from active military duty. We’ll be heading home in the morning. Once we get there, we’ll scope out the lay of the land. Been some political shenanigans going on behind our backs. Unless I’m badly mistaken, Marshal Bledsoe will gladly write out a request for our support in enforcing the law as written. With the rest of the Sentinels plus Jake’s sons, a bunch of Gundersons, and about a hundred other allies I can pull together in pretty short order, we’ll get to kicking butt and taking names. Might take us a few weeks. Then, and only then, I’ll present your petition as refugees, seeking a permanent land allotment to authorize y’all as our good neighbors. If nothing else,” he finished with a malicious smile, “I’ll mention there’s a whole mob of horny gals down here and the men will stampede to the polls in your favor.”
“I ain’t horny, honey,” the brown haired woman said, “but for that, I can fake it.”
The group broke up laughing.
It was later that evening, when Grunt settled in for a long visit with Julia and me, that I got the second greatest shock of my life. The first, of course, being the slaughter of my parents in front of my nine year old eyes.
“Figured I’d spend some time with you two,” he began, “seeing as how I, too, will be heading out in the morning.”
“We appreciate it,” Julia smiled, patting the big man’s shoulder as she poured tea.
“You done good, Michael.”
“How so, Jake?’
“Well, the scheme you set up with Chang for sure, in fact the way you run the entire war, but I was thinking of something else. I was thinking about the way you secured the Library.”
I looked at him over the rim of my mug. “You figured that out?”
His mouth curved in a smile. “I did. Wasn’t hard. Not that you let any secrets slip. It’s just that I’ve known about that building for a long time.”
“I have. Tell me, you still believe the propaganda?”
“Uh…what propaganda, exactly?”
“About capriosi vilify. You believe that virus killed off humanity? Or most of it? And that William Johnson Schenk deserves his reputation as the greatest mass murderer in all of human history?”
He was heading somewhere with this, but I couldn’t see where. “I…guess so. Yeah. Is there some reason–is that not right?”
“Oh,” he mused, “it’s only off by about 180 degrees. We got to go back about thirty years Before. Schenk may or may not be as smart as they claimed, but one way or another, it came to his attention that Earth had a problem. Not the virus; that wasn’t even a spark in the inventors’ eyes then. No, this was before that by a good bit. Schenk had connections and one of those connections came to him one night with a preposterous story. Said we were behind invaded by aliens.”
“Aliens. That in itself wasn’t all that outlandish. We’d faced aggressive aliens before, the worst of them being the seventy-nines. If you’ve read your histories, we were losing that fight until we found out they tasted like lobster. Ate our way right through ’em. They freaked out. Didn’t like being substituted for McNuggets. But this time, the supposed aliens were far sneakier than the seventy-nines ever thought of being. The informant believed they arrived on a target planet invisibly, their seeds or embryos or whatever being, as close as the whistle blowing scientist could estimate, about the size of viruses. He also believed that (a) the aliens incubated inside human hosts, then eventually (b) took over the host completely.”
“Invasion of the body snatchers?”
Jake didn’t get the reference. “Invasion of the hostile takeover experts, more like. The scientist was terrified. It might already be too late, he said. A lot of people in high office and in law enforcement had already lost their humanity entirely, he said. If something wasn’t done, before long we’d be a population that looked human on the surface but was no more so, really, than the alien wearing the farmer’s skin in that classic movie, Men In Black.”
“How did you find this out?” I asked, curious.
“Hold on. Let me tell this my own way, okay?”
“Schenk didn’t believe the guy at first. Why would he? But he reviewed the data and, being a scientist himself, ran his own tests. Secretly, because if there was one chance in a billion this was not delusion, the danger would be beyond calculation. To his horrific dismay, his efforts to disprove his informant’s results demonstrated the opposite. The invasion was real.”
I blew out a breath. The air was cool now, after dark, but far above the subzero chill of midwinter. Yet I felt chllled. To the bone. “Go on.” I reached for a stick without thought. Stirred up the fire to shove back the shadows of the night.
“Yeah. Spooky, huh? Anyway, it didn’t take the notorious entrepreneur, William Johnson Schenk, long to realize that he was in terrible danger. Because he had to try countering the invasion. If even one human who was no longer truly human got wind of his efforts, he was dead. Therefore, his first move had to be to figure out a way of identifying an alien takeover at a glance. Personally, he never accomplished this, but his best friend did, and stayed by his side until the end. The friend described what he saw as Alien Arrogance. Just take any Democrat presidential candidate at random, multiply the candidate’s attitude by a factor of ten to the tenth power, and there you had it.”
Julia interrupted, unable to help herself. “This is real? True story?”
“As real as me sitting here, Jules. Believe me, I would not make up something like this. Now, part of what the media put out there at the time was accurate. Schenk did buy the land you secured in the border agreement, he did have both Schenk City and the Schenk Library built, and he did fund the efforts of the scientists who eventually created the virus that became known as capriosi vilify. But the virus was not designed to kill humans.” Grunt leaned forward, his gaze driving into me like a hundred-penny spike, piercing my brain. “It was designed to kill the aliens infecting humans.”
He straightened back up. I felt the pressure lessen as he continued. “Which it did. With extreme prejudice. Schenk’s team believed these invaders had probably never before come up against a killer designed to take them out without harming the host. But the terrified, driven, paranoid scientific team members, including Schenk himself, were right. For most of humanity, they were too late. Billions upon billions of taken-over human-skins died horribly. Only a very few survived, as you know.
“On the plus side, the mature aliens gave up on colonizing the planet. Or at least, so Schenk believed, based on the fact that once the eleven-year course of capriosi vilify had run, there were never any more reported cases of alien takeover.”
“Wait a sec.” I scratched my head, sincerely puzzled. “Schenk reportedly died of the disease–well, I guess of the alien takeover versus the virus, now that you’ve explained it. But anyway, dead Schenk. So how could he have known there were, as you say, no more cases of alien takeover.”
“You said it yourself,” the big man replied. “He was reported dead.”
I stared at him, nonplussed. Julia got it first. “Omigod,” she breathed. “You’re him.”
“Him who?” I asked stupidly. “You mean….”
“Don’t you see, honey? Jacob Sedlacek is really William Johnson Schenk.”
It couldn’t be. “Are you? Really?” His rodeo riding youth? That was a fib?
Jake bowed from his seated position. “In the flesh, Michael. A bit more flesh than I was born with, actually.”
He sighed, releasing a load he’d carried for decades, finally able to share his secret. “It was not well known at the time,” he explained, “but I was born with the same genetic flaw as Swako the Dwarf. A big man with half-length legs. It was considered culturally insensitive to remark on it, so–oddly enough–my deformity was my best kept secret. But with the end coming, I would have to change that appearance if I were to have a chance of competing with desperate men and women for food, shelter, whatever. I could not afford to be recognized, nor could I afford to look like a freak. Either one would be an automatic death sentence.
“Lucky for me, there were surgeons and technology in those times capable of performing miracles for clients who had the wherewithal to pay them. In exchange for thirty-eight ounces of gold bullion, the last of the MPS–uh, Miracle Prosthetic Surgeons–used stem cells, leg muscles from a cadaver killed in a car wreck, and several Artificial Intelligences to lengthen my legs by a foot. Heh. He thought that joke was funny. I wasn’t laughing. The post surgery pain and rehab sessions were out of this world. But they worked. The man who’d outfitted me for a post apocalyptic world died three months later, the suddenly matured alien presence within him succumbing to the virus I’d helped create. I’ve always felt guilty about that.”
He stopped, running out of gas. I felt gobsmacked. Julia, in her way more adaptable than I was by a country mile, nodded in understanding. The wind was picking up outside, skirling through the refugee camp, finding its way between unchinked logs in the half-built cabin we’d been given for the night, riffling the canvas of the tent we’d set up inside the wooden walls.
Julia found her voice. “No wonder you’re ready to call it a day, Jake.”
“Hnh. Well, yeah. There’s a bit more you need to know, to sort of close the circle. Laura Compton is my granddaughter, but she doesn’t recognize me now and I’d like to keep it that way.”
“Lips zipped,” I said quietly.
“Thanks. Now, Michael, your grandfather? Samuel Jade? You’ve spoken highly of him.”
“I have. He had more common sense than all the rest of the adults at Fort Confluence put together. I wasn’t very old when he died but I still miss him if I think about it. So I try not to think about it.”
“That’s probably best. But that best friend I was talking about? The one who could identify an alienized human at a glance? That was Samuel. He felt from the beginning, before you could even walk, that you had the stuff. If there’s anyone born to save our people, he told me, it’s young Michael, once he grows up.”
“He said that?” Just when I was sort of getting a handle on this new reality, Jake gobsmacked me all over again. I choked, struggling to keep the tears from escaping my stinging eyes.
“He did. But when I found out during one of my trading visits to Fort Steel that Finster and his merry band of Huns had wiped out Fort Confluence, enslaving the young women and younger kids, I didn’t know if you’d survived. It took me years to find out you had and more years to get you out of there. I didn’t dare ride in and tell Strator Tucker, hey, give me this particular kid and I’ll give you everything I’ve got in my wagon. Showing my hand might have gotten you killed, not rescued. When I did get you in trade, along with Kiko and little Free and what’s her name, even then either Tucker or Finster became suspicious and included Weasel in the trade as an infiltrator. Weasel was only told to try to find out where my home base was, but I’d lay odds there was more to it than that. I’ve always suspected they were suspicious, wondering why I’d been willing to take a problem slave with a bad attitude. Tucker was like Herod, willing to kill an untold number of male children in his attempt to kill Jesus early.”
I shifted uncomfortably on my stool. “I’m no Christ figure.”
“Hnh. Maybe not, Michael, but you dang sure did lead your people out of bondage, so you certainly qualify as Moses.”
Julia came to my rescue. “Don’t push it, Jake. Can’t you see you’re poking too hard? If there’s one thing my man can’t stand, it’s the very idea of idolatry.”
“Sorry. Maybe I do get carried away. A little.”
I had to change the subject. “How old are you, anyway? I mean, William Johnson Schenk was in his middle years somewhere near the final days of the Fall, right? And it’s been 47 years since then. Which makes you….?”
“One hundred fourteen. I’m 114 years old.”
“You’ve aged well.”
“Before-era wizardry again. Longevity treatments. The Library has those formulae on file but I doubt there’s anyone left alive capable of putting the right blends together. So I’m aging. Might last a good bit longer yet, but sooner or later, it’ll be back to dust.”
That was pretty much it. My mind was spinning, but I did think to ask about beautiful Lauren Evans, waiting for us at the Roost. Had she, perhaps, also received some of those longevity treatments? Jake and Jules both shut me down in a hurry. Never ask a woman’s age, I was told. Especially behind her back.