We rolled along for another hour before I broke. The steady clip-clop of the horses’ hooves helped lull me. Moss’s silence did not. Was the old Jew still absorbing what I’d told him…or was he figuring out when and where he was going to dump my body? I should never have confessed to having once been a deadly Black magician. Outside of Cuya County, people feared all magicians, but Blacks most of all. Why had I been so open? Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
The teams were allowed to drink from some of the many streams we crossed, but there was no noon stop for lunch. My stomach was growling again when Moss finally spoke. Glancing at the sun overhead, determining that high noon had arrived, he said simply, “There’s a box under the seat.”
Sure enough. Square. More metal, this container painted a dull green. Ammo box? It rested in a little inch-high corral designed to keep it from sliding around, though a serious bounce would have jolted it right out of there. I fished it out, lifted the lid, and… “Boiled eggs!” And salt. Boiled eggs and a shaker of salt. My salivary glands went nuts. We each peeled our own, flipping the shells off to the side. That would have been worth three lashes apiece in Cuya County for the first offense. “No litter police out here in the wilderness, huh?” Three eggs down for me. There seemed to be plenty; maybe I could get away with another two? Rotten egg farts, here we come.
The driver’s tone was wry. “Wilderness? We’re some distance from true wilderness, boy.” Moss, I noted, had settled for just two eggs. How did he keep going on that?
Not wilderness? I scanned our surroundings carefully. Aside from the long line of wagons in front of us, there was no sign of human life anywhere. Not a single village. Not even a farmstead. Nothing but the rutted tracks we followed, generally southward for now. Which made sense. The raw New Range upthrust blocked westward travel for another hundred miles or more. Occasional tracks branched off, mostly toward the towering peaks, but none of them were double-rut wagon trails. More like game trails. “I don’t get it.”
“This is the major trade route, Grant. Between all points west and the Northern Hook country of the Five Great Nations, everything passes this way. You don’t see them popping up like dandelions after a spring rain, but people are out there. Smallholders back in the hollows, farming and hunting and living their lives, usually owning a plow mule or two and maybe, if they’re lucky, a handful of horses. Few are rich enough to own wagons. Anybody can build a freight box, but the wheels, hubs, axles? Those require skilled craftsmen to build and good iron or some other salvaged Before metal for bolts and wheel rims, hub hoops and such. Those families, or sometimes loners, are violently paranoid. Riding up to their front yards without an invitation is an excellent way to get an arrow shaft through your ribs, or maybe a homemade spear.
“Every so often, we’ll find trading posts, small settlements set up to make money from the trade that rolls by their front doors. We’ve seen no one else because it’s too late in the season. Most every freighter has reached his chosen winter hangout by now. Even on this southern route, which we’ll be following all the way to a coastal city called Gatorville, winter weather is no joke. We’ll see mud one day, snow the next, mud again the day after that. It won’t all be dry, easy going like today.”
Uh…. “So, why are you guys the exception? I mean, the winter…and how far is Gatorville?”
“Not quite sure, son. Two thousand miles to Great River. That much has been pretty well surveyed. But from the river to Gatorville? Not so clear. Maybe another nine hundred. Give or take.”
“Three–three thousand miles?” My jaw dropped. My entire flight, all the way from Cuya County to the Western Jewish Nation, was no more than one hundred and ten miles as the crow flies. Probably one-fifty via the duck-and-dodge route I’d actually taken.
My mind boggled.
“There’s a map box behind the seat.”
Maps. Yes. I dug out the first two. Studied them. Nearly lost my lunch. On that fateful day, when I’d escaped the Cuya County jail mere hours before my scheduled execution, I’d had what I thought was a clear goal in mind. Run west, young man. Run west.
How far west the real west really was…I’d had no idea.
The maps were highly enlightening, crude or not. In the east, the country with which I was at least somewhat familiar, territorial borders helped explain the endless skirmishes and occasional serious wars between the Five Great Nations. In the west, everything was new to me. There were more maps in the case, some of them presumably portraying the middle section of the continent, the two thousand miles we had to cover before reaching Great River.
“So, we cross Great River at a place called Fort Ford? Makes sense. Except, how is it done? I mean, from the tales told in Cuya County, the flood is at least two miles across at that point.”
“Excellent question.” Moss nodded in approval. “The ferry boats are sizeable barges. A barge is powered by a row of pole men lining the upstream and downstream deck railings. These men stand to do their work, using long poles to propel the craft forward where the water is shallow enough. Where it is not, the poles are quickly drawn up and placed in hook-racks just under the tops of the railings. Wide-finned oars are then retrieved from other hook-racks, set into oarlocks secured to the railings, and the polers become rowers.”
That made sense. Sort of. “Wouldn’t the barge be shoved downstream all the time? I mean, I’m no boatman, but common sense….”
“Exactly right.” He turned toward me when he said that, briefly studying my face. I was studying something else, something I hadn’t noticed until the light was just right. There was a thin line running up the center of his forehead. With a tributary, a fork, about halfway up. Worry wrinkles? Or maybe just age, creeping up on the guy? “The ferry often ends up landing quite far downstream from where it started. As little as half a mile difference or as much as three miles, depending on the season.”
“Huh. So…then what?”
“So then, once the cargo and passengers are offloaded, the empty ferry boat is tied off by a long, thick rope attached to a team of horses that tow the thing back up to the launch point. The pole men have a different job during this phase. They use their poles to hold the boat out away from the shore, so it doesn’t ground itself or grind to a halt with its near corner gouging into the riverbank. This can be the hardest work of all, so the two rows of pole men take turns, spelling each other every thirty minutes. It’s a booger of a job. I wouldn’t want it.”
“No.” I imagined my whip-thin body trying to outmuscle a heavy barge and a team of horses, being scorned by burly men with more muscles than brains. It wasn’t a pretty picture. “Me neither. I see the Yellowstone caldera. Understandable. Fits what I’ve been taught. But the Death Desert? None of our schools ever mentioned that.”
“Stupid of them. The very earth is full of death there, kid. Radiation still hot from the last nuclear war during the final days of man’s Fall. Try crossing that desert and die, one way or the other, sooner or later. Not a pretty death, either. I don’t recommend it.”
A bit more map study prompted lots more questions. “How big is Gatorville?”
“Fluctuates. During the peak winter months, a bit less than your Cuya County.”
Really? Thousands? I had no idea there were settlements that big out in the Forbidden Country. “What’s the scale? I mean, compared to the eastern map?”
“Hm. How best to illustrate this…okay. You see a body of water called Peanut Lake?”
“The entire Norhern Hook could fit inside that lake. Twice.”
“You can’t be serious.” I mean, come on, the lake was obviously sizeable but hardly dominated the western landscape.
“Serious as Midget on the hunt.”
I shut up. This was going to take a while to sink in. Then again, my teachers always said I had more curiosity than a cat studying a mouse hole. “Ocean of Sturms?”
That one got a chuckle out of the teamster. “The mapmaker had a drinking problem and a slightly weird sense of humor. It’s supposed to say Sea of Storms. Sturm is German for storm.”
“Way up in the northweest corner, kind of northwest of Fort Steel, there’s a black circle with no name. What’s that? Oh, yeah, and another unlabeled circle spot next to Roil River. And an X, I guess it is. What are those?”
He scratched his stubbled jaw. “What, now you can’t ask one question at a time? Ah, the impatience of youth. Well, let’s see. The far northwest circle and the Roil River circle are recent rumors. No idea if there’s anything to them or not. There are some mighty big and dangerous raider groups out there. One of the most notorious is, or at least was, run by a bandit who called himself King Arthur. A known member of his gang rode into Gatorville a couple of months ago. Said he’d quit the gang and no power on God’s green Earth could persuade him back to that wild country. He spread his tall tales, or maybe they weren’t so tall, to anyone who would listen, but he didn’t dally around the city. Traded a string of worn-out nags and a small bag of gold for fresh horses, saddled up, and hit a beeline east. Crossed on the ferry at Fort Ford, lined out again, and killed all but two of his horses on the final two thousand mile run. We calculated he’d covered an average of eighty miles a day, not counting the ferry crossing time at Ford or the horse trading time at Gatorville. No idea what put him on the run like that, but word is, he’s lost all interest in the West. One of his tall tales involved King Arthur getting his head shot off by a lone gunman with a rifle, but that sounds pretty farfetched.”
“You talked to him direct?”
“Our interrogators did. He stopped in Masada, thought maybe he’d take up with us. We might have allowed it–maybe–but the fool made the mistake of trying to corner one of our young girls.”
“Yes. With our people, ‘trying’ would be the operative word. Our children are trained in self defense from the time they can walk. Mean folks have been trying to rub out Jews from the first day there were Jews. Some of our citizenry don’t like it, but the majority is strong on this point. Every member of the WSJ is wiling, ready, and able to stand and fight whenever that becomes necessary. Priscilla broke the man’s nose, dislocated a kneecap, put out one eye, and crushed his testicles. Took her about three, four seconds to do it.”
My own survival was seeming iffier and iffier. All of these people were trained fighters?
Moss must have read my mind. “Not every man, woman, and child is capable, you understand. We do have those in the city who are bone-deep pacifists, or mentally incompetent, mentally ill, stuff like that. But for the most part, mess with a JAP at your own peril.”
“Jap?” What were Japanese doing in the Western Jewish Nation? Wouldn’t they fit better in Hooded Cobra? Like I could talk.
“Jewish American Princess.”
“Oh. JAP.” Jewish humor? Or did their girls really see themselves as princesses? This was getting confusinger and confusinger.
“We wouldn’t have executed Mr. Bigmouth Raider for that alone. He hadn’t managed any harm. But during interrogation, he slipped up. Started bragging about things he’d done in the West. Name a crime, he’d been there, done that, got the karma for it.” He glanced at me, eyes twinkling. “Now, before you tell me karma isn’t a Jewish concept, remember, the Fall of the world wiped out five thousand of us for every one who survived. We’re not always exactly traditional. Anyway, he was asked numerous times if he’d really done those things. Every time, he not only confirmed it but revealed more gory and disgusting details. It was like he couldn’t help himself.
“We post-apocalyptic Jews, we ultimate survivors, have had to decide when to invoke the death penalty. The Torah allows the death penalty for many things. Cursing God, for instance, or desecrating the Sabbath. On the other hand, few Jewish courts imposed such a penalty, even for the most heinous of crimes. So what were we to do? To be or not to be, it was up to we. In the end, our court ruled, long before Bigmouth Raider showed up, that at least murder had to be met head-on with a short rope and a long drop. Though he’d not had the opportunity to murder in our jurisdiction, he confessed within our borders. So a gallows was built and we hung him like laundry on the line, swinging in the wind.”
I nodded sagely, as if I understood. In truth, any discussion of either murder or executions was enough to rile my stomach after I’d personally slaughtered all those people–most of them innocent–with my Black spell. Evil, evil me.
Time to change the subject. “What about the X?”
“More rumor. We hope others will think us to be no more than a large trade caravan. In truth, our purpose is deeper. We go to find a second homeland. That X marks an area we want to investigate.”
“Oh.” He was telling me too much. One thing was painfully clear: I would not be allowed to leave the wagon train. Not alive, anyway. I already knew too much.
Frying pan. Fire.
I really needed to change the subject. “Moss, you lived through the Fall?”
“Well, uh, do you mind telling me about it? I mean, if it’s not–”
“Oh, but son, it is. It really is. Still….” He fell silent for a long moment, thinking it through. “Most people have more courtesy than to ask, you know.”
“No you’re not. You’ve earned the right. It’s not every starveling fugitive under a bush who’ll open right up and spill his guts about having been an evil, murdering, Black magician mass murderer.”
“Well, when you put it like that….”
“Like I said, you’ve earned the right. I’ll tell the sad, sorry tale. But I have to do it in third person, Grant. Distance myself from the memories that way, at least a little bit. Like it happened to somebody else.”
“Any way you–”
“Shut up. Let me gird my loins.”
I shut up.
GRADUATION DAY, NEW YORK CITY, MAY 22, 2494 A.D.
Presidential High School was a quiet hive of pre-celebration, more than three thousand seniors donning caps and gowns in preparation for a day full of ceremony. Moshe “Moss” Feldman, just turning seventeen and a full year younger than any of his buddies, linked arms with the 3Bs as they marched boldly through endless hallways toward P-High’s cavernous auditorium. Despite his youth, Feldman served as leader of all four boys. And the only Jew, though that was never an issue between them.
“So, Moss,” irrepressible Barrett Johnstone piped up, “you finally gonna share?”
“Share what?” The taller one pretended ignorance, as if he didn’t know what the five-six runt of the litter was asking. If Barrett thought you were dissing him, he’d be in your face in an instant. Little man syndrome had gotten his butt whipped dozens of times in the past three years.
“Your nickname, man. I’m the only one who don’t know why everybody calls you Moss. I know it ain’t short for Moshe. Ben told me that.”
Ben Gill cocked an eyebrow at Moss. “Shall I tell him?”
“Might as well.” Nothing could dampen Feldman’s spirits this day. Not only were they finally graduating, a goal it had taken their entire lives to reach, but the notice had arrived via QMS just before he’d left home for school. The message was memorized now, etched in his neurons.
REL NYPD InternUp Application, Moshe Feldman.
INSTRUCTION: Report to Precinct 917, 0800 hours, 05/23/2494.
Short. Simple. Sweet. He kept replaying the wondrous text in his inner vision, listening to Gill’s explanation with half an ear.
“It’s simple, Bare. He’s called Moss because all the girls be lichen him.”
“You gotta be kidding. Billy, he’s kidding, ain’t he?”
Billy Gorham, as wide as a barn door and about as smart, replied stolidly, “No, Barrett. Ben wouldn’t kid about something like that.”
The ceremony was endless. Sheer, boring torture. None of the boys cared. They’d made it. They were all Kings of the World. After, the 3Bs scattered. They had places to go, people to see, drug-laced parties to attend.
Feldman went home to study. He’d be the newest kid on the block at 0800 hours the following morning. He might not be a natural talent at the job, but nobody was going to outwork him. Ever. His NYPD detective father was proud. His Democrat activist political science teaching PhD professor mother was deeply disappointed. Moss was simply determined. For one full year, the scope of his duties would be limited, until he came of age at eighteen and was allowed–indeed, required–to carry the full array of standard issue weaponry, armor, and communications gear. At that time, provided he excelled during his year as an intern, he would be offered an opportunity to join the Weps. His Dad did not trust the Weps. His Mom thought them ugly. Moss knew they were the elite of the elite. Better pay, prestige, respect. Front line combat against enemies both external and internal.
Weps, short for Weaponized Personnel, were in the news all the time. Famous. Moshe “Moss” Feldman craved fame. He was dedicated to serving his community–that was a given–and the best, most effective way to do that was as a Wep. What do you do for a living Moss? Oh, I’m a Wep. It sounded ever so much more gloriously girl-catching than I’m a, duh, cop.
WEP definition, NewCool American Dictionary. WEP or Wep, plural WEPS> Acronym for Weaponized Personnel. First in use circa 2467 at the height of the Red, White, and Blue War (2461-2478). Term generally applied to government employees equipped with implants designed to enhance the implantee’s ability to receive communications directly from other brains similarly equipped, though bootleg and black market versions have been rumored. Benefits include enhanced reaction time, better coordination of disparate units in battle, improvement in quick-twitch speeds, greater muscular strength, and improved discipline in the field.
Opponents of Weps usage have primarily focused on scientific studies proving reduction in the implantee’s ability to think for himself or to resist unlawful orders.
JUNE 2, 2494 A.D.
Most Americans woke up in a positive mood. Personal matters were squared away. Schools were closed for the summer. Weather was clear and balmy from coast to coast. Minors with government-approved plans in place were off to various teaching camps. The remainder faced mandatory training in approved cultural mores or trade academies designed to prepare them for future careers in everything from astrology to zebra breeding, coincidentally giving their parents a much anticipated break.
It wasn’t the America of the Founders. Not by a long shot. But it was still the best option on the planet. The United States–called the Fused States by disgruntled underground radicals–was recovering nicely from the decades of Proxy Wars in which the nations of the world had been puppets manipulated by alien races who parked in high orbit while gambling on the outcome. Okay, so you couldn’t simply head for the hills without raising red flags in the DPMB, but freedom wasn’t dead yet.
Just on life support.
True, urban gangs didn’t even worry about getting into trouble with the Digital-Psychic Monitoring Bureau. They earned their keep, their taxpayer-supported dole, by simply being. DPMB commercials explained it in simple terms.
WANT FREE INCOME FOR LIFE?
Punch Star 3 Star on your wrist implant.
Sign up for a simple survey.
That’s all there is to it.
The Bureau lied, of course. The gangers knew that. They just didn’t care. Ya wanna stick a un-visible skinny in me? Pain free? An’ gimme goodies forever, like the others get? An’ I’ll forget it’s even there? It won’t hurt my mojo with the ladies, will it? No? Sign me up!
The legal age of consent for implantation had been lowered to fourteen by Congress in 2483. Government bean counters swore more than eighty-two million gangers wore the “goodies gadget.” The gainfully employed paid for the program, of course. Why not? Uncle Sam gained stupendous amounts of raw brain data, millisecond by millisecond.
Yes, all was peaceful on this fine morning.
In the afternoon, at 1:33 p.m., the CDC announced the identification of a new virus. Capriosi vilify, with flu-like symptoms. It killed swiftly. There was as yet no antidote. Nothing much was known about this new threat. Three people were known dead from the disease, two in Italy and one in Australia.
It didn’t even register as a bump in the evening news broadcasts.
NOVEMBER 3, 2494 A.D., 3:18 P.M. (Eastern Standard Time)
Geniman P. Harcus, Puppet–uh, President. President of the United States, strode to the microphone. He was a tall man, neither portly nor thin, with a receding hairline, sad hound dog eyes, drooping jowls, and a mandatory audience of more than five hundred million citizens gathered in their living rooms to watch his hologram materialize. His broadcast would of course be automatically added to each home’s library. The People must have access to their elected representatives.
President Harcus took a deep breath and began to speak.
“My fellow Americans.” (pause) “It is with heavy heart, yet the steely determination for which our nation is known.” (pause) “That I bring grim tidings to you today. We are all aware of the recent explosion of Capriosi vilify deaths around the globe. We have an updated report for you. Please welcome Doctor Farisi Hamadori from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Doctor Hamadori.”
Harcus’s hologram stepped back, though it did not fade out. The President believed in maximum exposure to his constituency. In some of the smaller living rooms, he ended up standing in someone’s lap.
The CDC man took center stage. Or center living room(s), to be precise. A third of his audience shrank back; his was not a popular hologram. The man was thin, almost skeletal. His eyes were sunk deeply into his skull, burning with the fire of a zealot. He had a habit of waving his hands around in spastic jerks as he talked.
His report pulled no punches.
“Quite frankly, people, we’ve never seen anything like this virus. It is our top priority to uncover its secrets so that we may combat the disease before it kills us all. Because make no mistake, it could do just that.
“There are a few things we have determined. Capriosi vilify has a ninety-nine point nine eight percent mortality rate to date. In other words only one in five thousand people who develop symptoms survive.” He hesitated, as if he’d heard the collective gasp sucking wind in millions of living rooms. Until now, the administration had been denying the seriousness of the disease. “The latest census records list our planet’s population at forty-one billion people. As of today, this epidemic has killed more than three hundred million. If this death rate continues in linear fashion, and so far it has done just that since its first manifestation five months ago, humanity will be essentially wiped out in just eleven years. That’s eleven years from last June, not eleven years from today. We are doing everything we can to prevent that from happening, but the President has asked me to be blunt, so blunt I shall be. Our people at CDC have been hit, too. I’ve lost four percent of my best doctors in Atlanta already. These were critical researchers, geniuses in their fields.”
The doomsayer’s image faded out. The President’s image stepped forward. “People, I don’t have to tell you that speculation is rampant. My administration has been asked, could this be some sort of parting shot from an alien force disappointed in the outcome of the last Proxy War? Have the aliens really gone, or could our neighbors be starfarers in human guise? I won’t yank your chains, folks. That’s not my style. The truth is, we simply don’t know. All we can do is keep fighting to uncover the nature of this monstrous attack. Now, before I sign off, you may have heard the rumors that we’re burning people. I will tell you here and now, that’s true–but the people are not alive. They’re certified dead before we put them into the crematoriums. We are not murdering people who have sniffles or a cough!”
The transmission ended.
Moss Feldman had been in the process of getting ready for night shift when the President came on. He would be late, but there would be no repercussions. Hanging out at home to watch a mandatory Puppet Show was an automatically valid excuse.
His routine was established, leaving his mind free to ponder. The cosmic grid was extremely well built these days, with redundancies upon redundancies. As yet, there hadn’t been a single blackout or even a brownout. But there would be. Self-replicating robots and over-hyped AIs could only do so much. Sooner or later, things were going to start breaking down.
One of the Weps already had. A decorated war hero, Johnny Elyas Meercham had started showing symptoms. A good soldier in every meaning of the term, he’d turned himself in to the nearest hospital for evaluation. The doctors had confirmed a diagnosis of Capriosi vilify. When hospital staff attempted to move him to an isolation ward, the retired Wep had snapped.
Thhirty-seven civilians, thirteen regular city police, and three active Weps with the latest implants were dead at last notice. Johnny Elyas was still out there somewhere. News outlets were forced to keep a lid on it, so the general population was unaware of that particular threat in their midst. But Moss knew. As a police intern, he was required to know. One of his duties at the station was sorting incoming communications, prioritizing them so that detectives and patrol officers–and particularly the precinct captain–did not get overwhelmed with chaff.
Becoming a Wep didn’t look like such a hot career option any more. We’re all going to be dead in another ten and a half years. But I still have to make a living, at least until the bug gets me. Maybe apply for Harbor Patrol? Precinct 917 supports a Harbor Patrol squad. That means boats. Boats with guns. And maybe a way to escape New York City when the time comes. If I’m still alive then. Moss Feldman was not one to ignore necessary preparations for any possible future. He was more ant than grasshopper, more prepper than ostrich even when an ostrich view might be preferable to hard, cold truth.
Moss’s mother died three weeks later. Capriosi vilify didn’t nail his father for another four years after that, but Feldman, Sr., had been a walking dead man from the moment they hauled his bride’s congested, face-blackened corpse off to the nearest hastily erected crematorium.
Moss waited for the bug to take him as well. And waited. And waited. Watched society fail around him, served as honor guard when his precinct captain joined the ashes to ashes group. Survived firefights and ambushes while rising in ranks depleted by an enemy no one could fight. Witnessed cannibalism as food supplies to Manhattan dwindled to a trickle and then to nothing, the ranks of truckers and shippers and farmers all decimated anew each year.
Death mocked him, laughed at him, scorned his silent urgings to hurry up and be done with it. Two of his best friends fell to the virus. One, little man syndrome himself, ended up with a blackened face but otherwise made a full recovery: One in five thousand. With no way to know whether he was immune or simply a late entry in the Grim Reaper’s mortality race, Moshe Feldman still waited.
Until he could wait no more. NYPD had no command structure left. Few precincts other than 917 had any buildings left. It was time to get out. In fact, it was past time.
But he couldn’t go it alone. Couldn’t take the coward’s way out and simply run like a rabbit. Death would be a thousand times preferable to that.
He called in the last of his markers. Sent messages out via those few couriers he could trust. Brought out the only transportation that might give him a chance, stocked it from stem to stern…and waited some more.
SUNDOWN, JULY 4, 2502 A.D.
“Cast off! I said cast off!” Captain Feldman’s bellow raked the deck, scraping the hairs on the back of Barrett Johnstone’s neck as he crouched behind the stern gun’s shield. The little man froze, staring at the heavy rope securing the police cruiser to a foot-thick dock post. To reach the big loop and flip it up from the post, he’d have to leave the cover of the space composite shield. The shield would stop anything short of a shoulder-fired rocket. His 140 lb. body wouldn’t even stop a well-thrown rock. And the mob was armed with a lot more than rocks. How many were stacked up behind the precinct’s perimeter wall, he wasn’t sure. A lot. Lead elements were already topping the wall, slicing themselves to ribbons on concertina wire, being used as human protective flesh-pads for others who climbed right over them. This last precinct compound, this last symbol of authority, spurred them to a single, overpowering rage.
Not unlike the last election, Barrett thought. These people were insane. Literally. He stared at the rope, unable to make his body move.
“Oh, for–” A pin clattered to the deck. The grenade lobbed over Johnstone’s head, landing on the dock just behind the offending post, bouncing and rolling and–boom. Big boom. Not a single eardrum burst among the people lying flat on the big boat’s teak boards. That was a surprise. Wooden shards pelted the sidewalls and the gunner’s shield, bounced harmlessly from Captain Moss Feldman’s sky-gray, full body armor. The blast had slivered the dock post and sliced through the tie-up rope, allowing it to slip free. It floated on the water now, trailing behind the big boat.
From the corner of his eye, Barrett saw his high school friend stride through the debris. Feldman’s eyes were narrowed dangerously as he watched a Soldier from Hell rocket into view from behind the wall. The man soared like a round from a mortar launcher. He was clad head to toe in patented SAAC, Space Age Armor Composite, gleaming white-oange in dying sunlight. Feldman muttered, “Well, foo. Wep my arse and call the paperwork done.” The oncoming adversary was a Wep, all right. Had to be. A fully functional Wep, capable of clearing a thirty-foot wall in a single bound. The government warrior landed lightly, then broke into a sprint for the dock.
Feldman yelled. “Go!”
The boat pilot jammed the throttle forward. Two thousand horsepower in the once-upon-a-time smuggling craft’s bootleg Queer Duck engine roared to life. The Badge of Honor shot away from the dock. jerking Barrett out of his gunner’s seat and breaking his nose against the shield. Should have belted in. Twenty-six year old Moss Feldman didn’t even sway; his boots were as good as bolted to the deck. Up-top passengers rolled around like bowling pins struck by a pro bowler’s best hook shot. What was happening to below-deck passengers probably shouldn’t be considered.
The Badge was powerful, but as fast as the Wep appeared to be, he might still manage a leap to the boat’s deck before the escape craft could get up to speed. Sixty feet of hull loaded to the gunwales with humans, ordnance, and survival gear did not a sprinter make.
A full-on Wep, loose in their midst? Barrett shuddered and peed himself. His hands were shaking. His nose-blood smeared the shield, left spray patterns on the control console. Why had he badgered Moss for this stern gunner’s position? The Captain had told him a hundred times, told him he wasn’t qualified, yet he’d persisted. Moss had caved in sheer frustration. Now Barrett had proven himself incompetent. Worse, he had jeopardized their escape from New York. If Big Man Feldman hadn’t taken over, the mob would have overrun the Badge. Maybe a decade of making a living as a mule for the Yankee Cartel didn’t qualify him for this position after all. Maybe lying to Feldman about his experience since high school had been a mistake. There was a cold look in his friend’s eye, a look that scared him. The Jew wasn’t the gentle boy he’d been on graduation day, back before they’d ever heard of Capriosi vilify. Even worse, Johnstone was jonesing. He had a feeling this was not going to end well.
He was right.
Moss never took his cold eye from the prize. More than fifty terrified passengers watched the drama unfold. Wep, launching into the air from the very edge of the splintered dock. Boat captain, dropping another grenade pin to the deck. Wep, flinging himself up in an arc that would land him perfectly on the accelerating deck, a hundred-foot jump. Captain, lining up his shot, rifling his arm forward. This grenade was one of the smart versions, specifically designed to seek and shatter body armor like the stuff the Wep was wearing. Mathematics of the throw were complex and unforgiving of error, but Feldman had been a star baseball pitcher in high school, scouted by three different major league teams. Time delay on any smart grenade had to activate closer to its intended target than to its thrower. It had to make contact and detonate close enough to counter any evasive action the Wep might take. To complicate matters further, it had to detonate far enough away to avoid collateral damage among the boat’s passengers.
The explosion didn’t seem very loud this time. No shards or splinters or anything rained on the deck. But the results were satisfying. The grenade had touched the Wep’s shoulder armor and gone boom, opening a web of cracks and a few clean-through gouges. The concussion had knocked the man out and had also knocked him off course. Implants were not designed to keep a soldier’s brain matter from being rattled by a direct hit. He struck the water face first, pile-driving the entire unit beneath the water’s surface.
Down, down, gone.
Barrett Johnstone stared, stunned. Until he found himself grasped by the collar, yanked erect, bum-rushed to the starboard rail, and unceremoniously pitched over, down into the befouled water. It was a death sentence. He could not swim. Besides, the mob was over the fence now, howling in frustrated rage, slavering for food. Nine years of Capriosi vilify, two to go before the End. The little stardust addict had lived through the virus and the riots, had the speckled black face to prove it, had escaped starvation and the million-dead-bodies stench of decomposing flesh that pervaded the Big Apple. He had not been able to survive his friend’s rage at his cowardice in the face of the enemy.
Such were Barrett Johnstone’s dying thoughts as he drowned in the slimy harbor, lost and alone, wishing for gills.
On deck, Moss Feldman scanned ahead, decided the pilot knew what she was doing, and turned his attention to the passengers. One hundred and fifty-three of them. A bent old man approached, peering up at him through thick spectacles. “He was your friend, was he not?” Disapproval rolled thick from his tongue.
The young leader looked the old man in the eye. “He was, Rabbi.”
The rabbi shook his head. “One should not execute one’s friends like that.”
Feldman’s responded quietly, yet the other on-deck passengers heard. “Hesitation at a combat position is the same as a death sentence for all of us. So is dissent when the danger has not yet passed. Once we’re settled somewhere and I decide we’re somewhat secure, I’ll take all the tongue lashings you care to dish out. We can adopt a code of civilized justice. In the meantime, Teacher, I’m the war chief. If you don’t like it, you can join Barrett and the Wep. I’m sure the scavengers would be grateful.”
There was no audible gasp, but dozens of eyes went wide. He would murder a rabbi, just like that?
Yes. Yes, he would.
The elderly scholar broke eye contact, cowed. He knew Death with a capital D when he saw it. He’d seen it in Feldman’s eyes. He felt shame in his bones, in the weakness of his aging knees, but in the end, he was no martyr. At least, he did not intend to volunteer for the post.
Mercifully, the young policeman left his passengers alone, moving up to belt himself into a chair beside the pilot.
Neither he nor Carol Williams spoke. They had no need. Which gave him time to think. Both the land and the people were broken, but the breaking wasn’t done yet. A few more years of extreme turbulence might be a silver lining of sorts. He was no Moses, no Aaron, yet he’d gotten his people out of Egypt, sort of. Now he had to find a place where they could all hunker down for the next few years.
That Yahweh would lead him to such a place, Moss Feldman never doubted.