“Why is it,” I asked Moss, “that we’re all using weapons first designed way back in the twentieth century? I mean, come on, we’re six centuries past that dinosaurical time, right? Gazillions of more advanced killing implements were developed after that, especially in the twenty-second and twenty-third centuries A.D., if our histories have it right. So why not lasers, polymer-framed slug throwers, mind blasters, digitac slicers, or any of the dozens of others that were widely used at one time? What happened to them?”
Feldman was the right man to ask. After all, he’d lived and worked as an NYPD officer during mankind’s Fall. He must have some answers. Besides, the timing seemed right. It was late May already, true, but we’d covered more than nine hundred miles since leaving the cesspit known as Gatorville. Another two weeks should bring us to the prime bottom land the Jewish caravan had targeted as a possible homeland, rich soil near the very Roil River we’d been following north for the past two months and change. It was early evening, a truly pleasant springtime dusk that extended far into evening hours during these long days and short nights. The train was teardropped, sentries were posted, and there was nothing much to do until Stirk reported back from his extended scouting foray. So…questions.
Moss thought a while before answering, reaching down to scratch Midget behind the ears, an absent, almost automatic gesture. He didn’t have far to reach. Even lying down with his eyes closed, the giant wardog’s head topped out halfway to his master’s knee. Young Esteban Morales dozed, worn out from one more day on the trail, using the canine’s ribcage for both backrest and pillow.
“Bunch of reasons,” the train leader said quietly. “Not just one. First off, new production of advanced tech weapons came to a screeching halt with the population crash. Making the right kind of steel, the right iron alloy to produce steel, isn’t easy, but it’s not rocket science either. An intelligent person with access to a few manuals and plenty of determined patience can learn steel by himself, up to a point. Plastics, polymers, lasers, mind-powered killers…those are something else. So, by…I’d say mid-Fall there were no more new high-tee weapons to be had.”
“Okay,” I nodded, setting my sketchbook aside. “But what about existing shooters? There must have been a gazillion of those.”
“Oh, sure.” Moss poured himself another mug of tea and settled into educator mode. “Some of the weapons we use today were built back then, like my machine gun, for instance, and a fair number of the rifles. But gunpowder-based shooters had been part of the human race for around a thousand years. Most of the high tee stuff hadn’t. So for one thing there was bias. An almost religious fervor if you will. A lot of cultures, as they were dying off, were also viciously destroying everything but lead and powder. Or bows and arrows; those had an even longer, almost sacred history. But the newer stuff… anathema. Literally billions of weapons were melted into slag or unceremoniously dumped into deep parts of the world’s oceans. There were even anti-tee groups, some of them extremely powerful, who made a virtual religion of weapons destruction. Frankly, I was happy to see some of those killing appliances disappear. A device that lets the user think an enemy to death is way out of my acceptance zone.
“Then there were the elements themselves. Anything synthetic turned out in the long run to have inherent problems we’d never anticipated. Polymer-based pistol frames, for instance. All the rage for nearly a century, but fire would do it in. Not that wooden gunstocks didn’t burn, but they didn’t melt and you could replace an incinerated walnut stock with another chunk of wood if you knew how to carve and drill. All in all, it’s a lo-ong sad story, at least if you happened to be one of those shooters. So we–by that I mean we few survivors and our descendants–pretty much went back to basics. Steel is an alloy, but the combined elements are all natural, as is the wood we use for stocks, as are the metals such as lead, copper, and silver we use for bullets. Gunpowder is made from ingredients found in nature. One thing I do miss is really good iron. Strange as it may seem, the older the iron, the better it was made. Medieval metallurgists really knew what they were doing.”
“Huh.” I didn’t quite know what to make of his answers. “You’re saying, then, that even though weapons of any sort are used exclusively for the purpose of killing things, it’s better to kill with what Mother Earth provided than to fancy-up the process?”
“Maybe not better.” He shrugged, uncertain. “Just seemed to go that way. There could be some high tee shooters left in the world. Undoubtedly are, in fact, and some of them still in working condition. Once the taboos have lost enough of their power, some yahoo is going to uncover a cache of the good stuff in one ruined city or another. Then, bet your bottom dollar, said yahoo or somebody he knows will have to see if those weapons can be used to go out and conquer the world. Seems like that’s human nature.”
Yeah. Take China, for example. They’d been the supreme masters of technology on planet Earth when humanity imploded. Based on the sheer, staggering population they’d had then, it stood to reason they came out of the Fall with more people still functioning than anyone else did. Not enough to build a ship that could weather the ultra-turbulent oceans of the world. Not yet, anyway, or we’d have seen them already. But as a people who revered their ancestors culturally and had a reputation for never wasting anything, wouldn’t they be likely to salvage the weapons technology of our forebears if anybody could?
For that matter, what about Hooded Cobra, right here on this continent, one of the Five Great Nations vying for supremacy in the Northeastern Territory we’d fled? It wouldn’t surprise me if those Snakehead Bay inscrutables had high tee destructive devices they hadn’t revealed yet.
I shuddered, goosebumps running up and down my arms. The politically incorrect Yellow Menace yet had a major part to play in the history of planet Earth. I just knew it.
We fell silent as the broad-built Stirk, scout extraordinaire, walked through the entrance, leading his horse. We’d heard neither horse nor rider approach. Which wouldn’t mean much, except I was willing none of the sentries had noted his return, either. It’s not that he couldn’t have given his password to one of our perimeter men and arrived in the normal way, but that wouldn’t be Stirk, now would it? Kept him sharp, he’d told me once, and kept the sentries on their toes as well. Every time he slipped through the line without being detected, at least one sentry swore that would never happen again. And yet it did.
It took a while before he joined us as such. Had to take care of Midnight, the horse that could sneak as effectively as his master. How a hard-hooved, eleven hundred pound stud could manage that was one of the greater mysteries in life.
Even after he did sit down with a plate piled high, we didn’t disturb the man. If what he had to report couldn’t wait, he’d have said so. Stirk needed calories to power that massive body, and a lot of them.
“Ah,” he sighed with pleasure when he was done. “That hit the spot.”
“You’ve got that look on your face, Moss Feldman observed.” Which was news to me. The old Jew could pick up on human subtleties I missed entirely. Or maybe it was his time as an NYPD cop, during the Fall. Reading a person wrong during those dark times must have carried deadly consequences.
“That I do. Two days ahead, we’ve got a problem. On the right, the wagon road runs along the river like always. But on the left, there’s a perfect raider’s perch. Squarish cliffs, jagged cracks between three sections. I didn’t circle around back of them because there’s no doubt in my mind that our devoted Gatorville shadows have people posted there, but I did ride the road past them, right in front. Knew I was being watched but figured they wouldn’t want to take me out just yet. Not when doing so would alert the train to trouble for sure…though Midnight likely tempted them some.”
“Nerves of steel, man. Go on. How tall are these cliffs?”
“Four hundred feet, give or take. They appear to be Kansas-flat on top. At the narrowest point, the road is no more than one-fifty from the cliff base. Moss, bad guys could hang out up on top and practically drop rocks on us. Worst death trap I’ve ever seen.”
Feldman scratched his cheek, thinking. “It’s not on any of the maps. At least some of the traders who regularly ply this route must have an understanding with the raiders. Raiders and traders. Heh. Something’s tickling my–you say they’re square, these cliffs?”
“Square-ish. Been some weathering. A little twist, a little torque on some of the faces. Cracks between them, narrow gaps really. No scree at the bottoms. They’re not like any other rocks I’ve ever seen.”
“Wait a sec. Not like any other rocks?”
“No. Maybe they’re not even rocks as such. Could be some ancient buildings or something, you know, from Before. It’s almost like they grew up out of the ground.”
“Grew–OrgaMins!” Feldman’s eyes went wide in surprise, an expression I’d not seen before. The man was hard to shake.
“What?” I had to ask. Even the usually phlegmatic Stirk looked puzzled. Merrilee had quietly arrived, pulling up a camp stool beside me. I could feel her bristling with curiosity. It was like that between us now, sharing blankets in her wagon every night, even riding beside her on the wagon seat for part of each day, learning to handle the reins and in turn being handled by a bright, sensual, witty woman. The boss didn’t seem to mind as long as I spent half of each day riding with him, jotting down camp clerky things, sketching, but mostly listening. The old man had a lot of accumulated wisdom born of experience to impart, stuff I needed to know. In a sense, I’d become an apprentice to both Moss Feldman and his life-filled daughter in law.
“Two words jammed together,” he explained. “Organic and mineral. Thus, OrgaMins. The OrgaMinites were a cult group of mad scientists who sort of ran amok for a while during the twenty-fourth century. Their theories were both logical and crazy or just plain crazy, depending on how you looked at it. There never were more than a few hundred of them, but they had some powerful funding, shadow government backing, and some truly brilliant minds among them. Mostly chemists, both organic and inorganic. I don’t remember too many details–as a kid, history was never my favorite subject–but a few things stuck. For one, their basic approach went something like, (a) rock crystals grow, so how can we say they’re not alive, (b) the earth’s crust is mostly silicate based while animate life is carbon based, yet (c) oxygen permeates both forms, organic or inorganic. So (d) why not teach carbon and silicon to get along with oxygen as the mediator, sort of a threesome?”
Stirk finished pouring himself a fresh cup of tea, then held in his oversized hands, regarding Moss thoughtfully. “Sort of a Mormon polygamous marriage among the elements? Man playing God…again? That can’t have ended well.”
“Oh, it didn’t. Not at all. Because they succeeded, after a fashion. Some bastardized chemical wizardry later, the produced what came to be known as OrgaMins. Which were quickly outlawed after one of their scientists accidentally dropped a packet of Seeds while visiting our nation’s capitol. The triple blocks you describe, Stirk, were the only form ever devised, mostly because the government sent a few of the OrgaMinites to prison and conveniently disappeared the rest of them. I wouldn’t doubt some black ops organization within the deep state still had Seed packets ready to go, right up to the Fall. You know, as handy secret weapons to be dropped in foreign capitols, should the perceived need arise. But they had to erase those people from the public awareness after the Seeds produced cliffs that shot up under the Washington Memorial. Weirdly, ol’ Washington wasn’t hurt at all, just perched up there on the very edge of the cliff, looming over the rest of D.C.”
Merrilee stirred beside me. “That’s quite a cautionary tale.”
“Yeah, well, there’s more.” We all paused as a sound touched our ears, then relaxed. Just a nighthawk, swooping bugs out of the air. Go, nighthawk. “Nobody ever reported any OrgaMins in the western half of the country, but I’m guessing the politicos didn’t quite manage to snag every scientist in their dragnet. Or maybe it was just a rogue CIA agent with a seed packet in his pocket. Who knows? What we do know is that OrgaMins have ways of defending themselves. Once they got the Washington Memorial off of the cliffs and out of the way, mining crews came in to dismantle the rock. The idea was to use standard blasting techniques, but the cliffs had some sort of sentience, or at least awareness of threat. When the first miner brought his drilling machine forward to start boring holes in the rock, the rock didn’t like it. It…the news reports of the day described it as, The rock punched back. Nothing with ill intent, be it machine or human, could get close enough to the cliffs to plant any demo charges whatsoever. The cliffs could smell a bad robot as easily as an evil miner.
“In the end, they had to evacuate Washington, D.C., for the duration. Not just the capitol grounds, but a couple miles radius around Ground Zero. Even then, the rock fought back, but how could such a being defend itself against bombs dropped with pinpoint accuracy from three miles up? In the end it couldn’t, and the OrgaMins died.”
Moss fell silent. None of us felt like saying anything. These potentially deadly cliffs were alive?
Finally I had a question. “Uh…can these OrgaMins propagate?” A vision of invasive live rocks reproducing filled my mind, making me shudder.
“Not that I ever heard of.”
“Well…that’s a relief, anyway.”
“Yeah. It is. But here’s the thing. We don’t only have a death trap in front of us, but we’re facing something that may not appreciate people shooting at each other. A stray bullet might not do much damage to a cliff, but do the OrgaMins know that? And the old histories–man, I wish I’d paid more attention in school–there are a lot of details lacking. Are they more dangerous to raiders presuming to shoot at us from their tops, or more dangerous to our wagon train that has to pass near their bases? Because I’ll tell you right now, sudden cracks up-top that swallowed and then crushed Queenie’s shooters would be helpful, but having a hundred thousand tons of living rock fall over our way and smash us to grease spots…not good.”
“So,” Stirk said heavily, his voice matching his bulk for once, “seems to me we’d be better off letting the bad guys shoot at us while we politely refuse to shoot back. And that’s disturbing, Moss. I can’t tell you how disturbing. We could easy enough rig some of our spare sheets of metal to slide out over the driver–if the driver hunched over so his eyeballs were close to between his knees, anyway. And if you’re right about these OrgaMins, the cliffs would be likely to act against the shooters, not the relatively innocent pilgrims trekking north and minding their own businsess. But getting through alive would still be an iffy proposition. Any raider would want to take the horses alive, either for breeding or resale, but would they let them go if there was no other choice? I don’t think so. Hell, they wouldn’t even have to kill or disable that many. Drop a couple leaders in their tracks and the rest of ’em aren’t going anywhere. With the road blocked by a disabled team and wagon, how could they? The terrain to either side is nothing but sagebrush and gopher holes. Big gopher holes. Broken leg country. Busted-brush stab-horse-in-gut country. I don’t like anything bout it.”
“Nobody with the sense God gave a sody cracker would, Stirk. I sure don’t. Tell you what. Let’s sleep on it, put in tomorrow on the trail, and then get back to serious council tomorrow evening. I’ll make the round of the wagons now, let everybody know just what we’re up against. Maybe somebody will have a bright idea.”
The scout grunted, skeptical. I didn’t blame him.
Merillee and I bedded down before returning to the subject. She spoke first, after slipping tight next to me so I could wrap an arm around her shoulders, her face warm against my chest. “Slim?” She didn’t sound sleepy at all.
“Something’s bothering you. I mean, beyond the obvious.”
Oh, snap. Can all women read minds? “Yeah.”
Unless I didn’t want to talk about it, is what she meant. Which meant I’d better talk about it if I ever wanted to see her naked again. Women and their weapons. “It’s just…Lee, I could get us through.”
“Past the OrgaMins?”
“Then why–oh. Sorcery. Magic.”
“Yeah.” I sucked in a really big gutful of air and sighed out slowly. “Hon, I could call in a storm that would deluge the clifftops, blind the raiders utterly, while leaving us comparatively dry. Which we might need, ’cause they’re bound to have men posted down on the flats, too, to mop up. But….”
“But that’s a slippery slope.” She curled her fingers into my chest hair, what there was of it. “Justify it once, then the next time we’re facing what looks like impossible danger, it’ll be that much easier to cross the line. And pretty soon you’d be a full fledged combat sorcerer. Which would maybe knock you right off your spiritual path and pound you into pulpy paste. Symbolically speaking.”
“Got it in one.”
“Not to mention…if OrgaMins are living things, how horribly did they suffer when they were planted, grew, and then were attacked in D.C.? I realize that’s maybe a small thing to worry about in light of all humanity’s Fall later on, but still, it bothers me.”
I hadn’t thought about that. Moments later, intending to respond, I hesitated. Huh. My lady was sound asleep, snoring softly. Nothing like driving a wagon from sunup to sundown to get her ready for a good night’s rest, sufficient unto the day the evils thereof.
When dawn came, she was rested and raring to go. I hadn’t slept a wink. What if my high and mighty decision to avoid using magic at all costs…cost some of our people, or even just a horse or two, their lives? Could I live with that? The image of Merrilee’s torn, bullet-riddled body kept rising in my imagination. No. I could not live with that. Yet I was none too sure I could live with the alternative, either. Even if I pulled off the most subtle, sneakiest bit of wizardry imaginable, the train would sooner or later realize I’d done it. There were people in this group who sensed such things. Would they treat me differently? Of course they would. Either through respect, fear, or just plain resentment. Those who mark themselves as different by too large a margin are always targets for suspicion. If not adoration. Which would be worse.
Wait a minute. Stroke of genius. Could I talk to the cliffs, the OrgaMins? Discuss it with them? All while blessing the situation in the name of the Creator, of course…yes. It might work.
Or it might not. Decisions, decisions, decision.
Evening Council was, unsurprisingly, a somber affair. Most of the wagon train’s adults who did not have duties elsewhere were present. Not around Moss’s cheery campfire, mind you. There wouldn’t have been room. But Feldman had set his little evening blaze to crackling, snapping, and firing occasional orange-colored sparks aloft with the entire community in mind, rigging the fire ring well out in the center of the encampment. Besides Moss and his daughter in law, there were half a dozen others: Me, because I’m the company clerk and lucky that way. A handful of scouts, of course including Stirk because he was the only one who’d ridden in the shadow of the OrgaMins. Merrilee scooted her camp stool over close, so she could lean into my left side a little bit. Comfort for both of us, and courage.
More than thirty other men and women ringed us in small groups, each group with its own fire for warmth and light. They struck me as fiery beads on a magical necklace, but that was likely just my imagination running away with me. As it did sometimes. It occurred to me that an artist working from an aerial perspective could produce a remarkable painting of the gathering, were he or she so inclined. I didn’t have my sketchbook because I needed to take notes. Life and death decisions would be made here tonight. Notes were important, at least politically. If things went south at the OrgaMins, an out-of-balance man who’d just lost his entire family might be inclined to blame Moss. But if there was a record showing that same man had expressed support for the plan that didn’t work…dirty pool, as they say, but it helps to think ahead. And Moss Feldman was always thinking ahead.
Two hours into the planning session, my butt bones were killing me, Merrilee had twice fallen asleep and nearly toppled from her stool, and the natives were getting restless. No one was leaving, but an air of sullen discontent poisoned the night atmosphere. It seemed clear to everyone, especially after Moss Feldman explained the cliffs were living OrgaMins, the brainchildren of some long dead mad scientists, with the ability to act against humans who showed aggression near them. Moss had been quite convincing. We didn’t dare fire off a single round to protect our teams and wagons while caravanning past them. What to do? What to do? The wagon train found itself indecisive for the first time ever. It was not a good feeling.
Well, foo. I certainly didn’t want to speak up, but I had it to do, didn’t I?
“It’s possible we could make the cliffs our allies,” I said a bit too loudly, and every eye snapped my way.
“That some of your witchy thinking, wizard boy?” The voice came from somewhere in the outer circle of watchers. Most members of the train seemed to like me well enough, to appreciate what I’d done for the train in the months since my adoption. The majority were far past worrying about my darkling past. But there’s always one.
“More like common sense,” I replied calmly. Calmly on the surface. Inside, I was seething. Mouthy bigots have never set well with me, but my Cuya County years had taught me to never let ’em see you sweat. “We’ve heard Moss tell about how the Before OrgaMins fought back in the nation’s capitol. Did those living rocks know what those explosives were? Maybe, but seems to me it’s more likely they were able to sense the intent of the humans setting the charges. There are so many explosive possibilities out there, it would take a huge database in a rock’s brain to recognize each and every one. Much simpler for our mad ancestors to wire their rocky babies to simply recognize positive or negative intent.”
“You a scientist, boy?” Different voice. Same attitude. Moss didn’t say anything, just looked thoughtful and let me handle it.
“Kinda sorta. Most of my life prior to running from Cuya County was spent studying one discipline or another. Thing is, how about this, we think good thoughts to the rocks, eh? Now hold on, hold on, I ain’t done yet.” My grammar tended to slip at times like this. Had Mom lived, she would’ve slapped me upside the head for using the a-word. “Been thinking, and I believe if we think good thoughts about the OrgaMins when we make that passage, maybe even talk aloud to them a little, sing love songs to ’em, they’re going to appreciate us.”
The original negative Nancy yelled out again. “You want us to seduce a bunch of rocks?
I snapped. By this time I’d identified that first voice, so I was able to call him out by name. “You want everyone you know and love buried under hundred-ton slabs of rocks, Bing?” I was looking him right in the eye. Knew it, even though I shouldn’t have been able to make that kind of solid contact with a figure half-hidden in gloom, illuminated only partially and fitfully by guttering campfire light. Wizard sight? Maybe. Whatever it was, the hecklers, both of them, shut up for the duration.
“Try to put yourselves in the rocks’ positions,” I continued, this time without interruption. “Think rock. There you are, minding your own business, and these little insects–that’s us–start crawling past, regular line of ants moving north with the obvious sense of purpose all ants have. But these little line-crawlers are friendly ants. Most of all they admire us noble living rocks as the most beautiful beings in all of creation.”
Ha. I had them spellbound. Hadn’t even used any magic, except the magic of the storyteller.
“Now, you noble rocks are simultaneously aware of another batch of insects, also humans by our definition, but to the OrgaMins, they come across not as cheerful, loving ants but evil, kill-minded cockroaches. These roaches are absolutely overflowing with bad intentions–and the OrgaMins, if they have the same talents known to their ancient brothers in our former nation’s capitol, will know the raiders for what they are.
“If I’m right, the cliffs will act against the riflemen scattered along their upper east edges. Violently, with malice aforethought. And we’ll sail right through, though the fate of the raiders may harsh our mellow a bit.”
I stopped. There wasn’t any more to say. Until Moss asked, “Slim, if we try this thing, would you be willing to grab one of our spare mounts and ride at the head of the column?”
“Absolutely. In fact, I’ll do more than that. Once I reach the far end and the first wagon clears the cliffs, I’ll ride down back the full length of the gauntlet, singing my love song to the rocks all the way. Then turn around and ride back forward again, until everybody is safely clear. If I’m wrong, the first fool the cliffs crush will be me–or even if the rocks simply don’t take out the raiders for us and Queenie’s Meanies get some rounds off, I’ll be the first to take a bullet.”
I never really expected the Jews to go for it. But they did. Why, I’ve never been entirely certain, though the fact I’d make a handy scapegoat if things went wrong did occur to me.
To an outside observer, had there been any such–and maybe there were, who knows?–it must have looked absolutely insane. I know it felt that way, and it was my idea.
We began transiting the OrgaMins at the precise moment a blazing sun rose above the eastern horizon, leaving us still in shadow on the low wagon road while slinging its burning rays straight into the eyes of the ambushing force we knew had to be up there. Hopefully, they were not only blinded momentarily but crazy-grumpy. We’d certainly encouraged that. Yesterday, we would have reached the cliffs in late afternoon with light conditions favoring the shooters on the rim. Would have, except Feldman’s wagon “mysteriously” threw a wheel and we had to stop, teardrop up, repair the wagon, and settle in for the night. None of Queen Slaughter’s gang would have been allowed to retreat from the cliff tops. Oh, they’d undoubtedly left a few watchers out at the edge, allowing the rest to rotate back a bit, out of sight of our camp, so they could eat and maybe drink. But it would have been cold food, a cold camp, likely with no water but the brackish stuff in their canteens.
And with rock everywhere, they’d defecate in the cracks between OrgaMin blocks. Then after dark, still no fires, no lights, and who knew if there were rattlesnakes up there? Baring your cheeks over a long, invisible drop where venom-fanged reptiles might be just waiting to bite your moon or something more personal…I was betting there were a whole bunch of cranky, constipated dudes up there right now. Pumping out all those nasty feelings….
My mount was the flashiest one I could find, a mostly white pinto with bay spots and a gentle disposition. I rode ahead boldly, convinced that if I’d read this wrong, it would be better for a sniper’s bullet or a rockfall to kill me anyway. My singing voice isn’t bad–not great, but not bad–so I raised my voice in song as I rode, openly keeping one eye on the rims towering over me and the other on the mare’s flicking ear that bespoke her bemusement.
Good morning to you, OrgaMins!
I never thought I’d see ya!
Your living beauty graces me,
You’re a living Hallelujah!
This beauty morn with all fresh born
Celebrates your beauty
May you live forever and a day
While I simply do my duty
I am your friend and so are all
Of those who travel with me
We wish you all the very best
As we make this little sortie!
Neither long nor complicated, the little song soared. I swear I felt the cliffs smile. And then…suddenly, they weren’t smiling any more. Guns were going off up there, but they weren’t aimed at us. Nor were the screams, screams that would curdle a komodo dragon’s milk, if a komodo dragon had milk. I didn’t dare look away from the rims. If those following me were losing it–and I was certain some were–my own rock solid emotional support and love I felt for the reddish cliffs might be all that kept everything from going to Hell in a hand basket.
It took a moment to register what I was seeing. The mare snorted and tried to run, and I was glad I’d picked the most placid thing I could find. Roughly the top half of the four hundred food cliff-in-triplicate was undulating. The rim shivered and shook. The screams began to intensify even more, then to dwindle. Then they stopped completely. The rocks went back to being rocks, immobile and inscrutable.
Silence. Dead, dead silence.
I kept riding at an easy pace. Kept singing, though my throat was growing hoarse. Reached the far end, turned, and retraced my route, directly under the killer cliffs. Most of the wagon drivers and their mounted escorts had their mouths open, singing or praying our simply breathing in silence, no sound coming out. A few were clearly in shock, their only salvation the many hours of muscle memory that enabled them to guide their teams without conscious thought. But Jews are tough. Only a few of the more timid souls had opted for the sliding metal seat covers; as I passed them, I could see nothing of them, hunched forward as they were with their heads between their knees. I was glad there were only a few of those. The Queen might still be alive, might be with some sort of blocking force hiding down in the river brush. If she still chose to attack, we would need shooters who weren’t limited in their movements.
No one tried us. Merrilee, near the front of the column, sat perkily on her wagon seat and chirped her little heart out, singing my song even if she did have a few of the words wrong. I’d had to write and practice the tune in a hurry. She’d obviously listened.
At the rear of the column, I turned to ride back through again, holding pace with Moss’s wagon. The wagon train boss was singing with obvious gusto and good cheer. I thought the melody was from Fiddler on the Roof. That tune had never died, never mind the centuries since it had been born. He’d written a parody, of course, praising the OrgaMins much as I had. Just with different words. We sang together, differently but together, almost in a round. Once we’d past the lovely killer rocks, we didn’t stop singing, either. Tension claws still gripped our shoulders. Who knew what kind of range those things might have? I threw a heartfelt THANK YOU and we kept going. Thank you for killing our cockroach enemies. Thank you for not killing us. We only stopped at noon long enough to water the teams and give them a snack of rolled oats, then moved on. By the time we stopped to set up camp at sunset, we’d covered twenty-seven miles, a single day record for the train.
It didn’t seem like enough.
Only much later would we hear the news through the grapevine. Atop the OrgaMins, every man had been sucked down into fissures on the rock that opened without warning, then clamp-splatted its victims to an instant film of grease. Squirtilizer. Most importantly, the self-styled Queen Slaughter, the one-armed woman who had in fact led her own gang to a slaughter like no other, was not up on top when the OrgaMins had their say. She survived the massacre, but only briefly. One of her own surviving gang members, or maybe several of them–the rumors differed–shot her in the back two days later. Repeatedly.
The great piratical power of post-Fall’s Northwest Territory was broken forever. There would always be outlaws, but the huge gangs were done. Civilization had come to stay.