I took a too-long break from the action but have started trudging through the slushy gravel pit a novel can be. Who knew it was so f'ing hard?
“What the fuck? Why are you here? How?”
“Does it matter?”
“I guess not. Can you get me a beer?”
“What do I look like, you stinking drunk.”
“You look like a woman about to get me a drink and a drunk is better than a heartless bitch.
She eyed him with a hungry stare. He could not tell whether she wanted to screw or kill.
“Hurry up. Plans changed and we have to go now.”
“It's not my emergency.” Benjamin got up and walked to the refrigerator. He could not believe how strong he felt as he opened a beer. “But that is some strong medicine they gave me, I feel like I've been on vacation.”
“Good. Time to get back to work,” she said.
“Calm down, will you.” He sneered and went to the bathroom. The wound had healed and he appeared fresh in the mirror. As he pulled on clean pants he sensed that rather being alright, all was on the precipice of wrong. “Maybe I'm it's sleep fog.” He recalled Jeb's words but he let them slide into the apathy.
When he came out of the bathroom Tobacco Brown was zipping up a dufflebag.
“I was wondering what the hell we're waiting for. Let's go get this done.” He said.
And so Benjamin Patton looked around his place unsure if he would ever come back and decided he needed nothing more than he had and walked out with the siren killer following.
“Take us to Mr. Fujeta's.”
“Have you been there?”
“Stay cool. It is a bad place to lose your head.”
They had reached his truck in the second basement. He popped the hood and threw the duffel-bag inside. His backpack stayed with him.
“Why is this..I didn't clean my truck.” He asked as he opened the door.
“Oh. Mayor Winterfeld sent his man to check it out and clean it. Your full on fuel and in ready to ride clean.”
He did not have his normal capacity for anger or he would already be in the Mayor's office for messing with his tools. “I hope nothing was fucked with.”
“Relax, I was here the whole time, how else do you think he got into it.”
“He did do a nice job. Feels good in here.” He brought up the command screen. “Fujeta's fantasyland.”
“Destination set. Default route.” A computer's voice spoke through the speakers and the machine used all of its trajectory feedback information to navigate the serpentine garage and through the exit tunnel. After five miles, the tube rose up and broke onto open ground.
They were in the heart of compound country. Menacing fences lined the road on both sides and a slew of Open Country rigs roared by. The drug czars built their spreads behind kaleidoscopic walls guarded by strands of proton wire. Fights once raged between the czars but Tobacco Brown made her name when she was sent into squelch the fires. Tentative peace was made. Every few years, some clown would get too full of jack and try to take over another compound and he would find his small empire destroyed. The battle lines were in distant lands, not the Mayor's backyard. The fences were built mostly to keep the roughneck pirate outfits from straight robbery. They lived in groups that cared for nothing but survival and to crack a man's head with a hammer. Razor wire and broken glass kept the timid at bay from their lands. Pine saplings grew like an emaciated army along some sections of road, behind which more evolved groups of people worked together for a more honest life.
They continued down this road for twenty miles and then turned north on a dirt road running along a gurgling river. Overdrawn skies smoothed colors to a dull shade that reflected well with Benjamin. They bounced along the road a ways until he stopped the truck before a vining archway of surreal green.
“Certain annihilation to those who enter without permission.” A hand painted sign on the arch read. Benjamin got out to palm a box hidden beneath the broad leaves. Thousands of small buds were starting to open and reveal a crimson flash. He liked the color though he knew it was a disguise for he could see glints of fiber-optic line twisting in the vines.
“Access granted.” A chirpy voice blurted and the buds closed.
Benjamin got back in the truck, “This place is like taking a handful of synthacid and going to a freak show in a cathedral. Mr. Fujeta made his first billion on psychedelics. I don't know if I can deal with this circus. Hell, I can't give two shits about much but I guess it's better than most of my other options.”
“Exactly. Can you pass me the bottle under your seat?”
“You've got a problem,” she replied while pulled a hammer, pliers, metal box, and gin out. “What's in the box?”
“Odds and ends.” He opened and drank. “I've got to tell my body that my soul is dead. It's self-medication rather than your standard drunkenness.”
“In that case, bottoms up.”
“How else am I supposed to go along on this madman journey of the Mayor's?”
“I use anger.”
Benjamin had the wheel and they kept track by the river through an established grove of pecan trees. An old wooden waterwheel spun with the river, turning a candy-caned drive shaft that flipped, rotated, and undulated a series of abstract forms.
“Everything has eyes.” Benjamin said with another swallow.
That is when Tobacco Brown noticed the unsettling and real eyes set into the art and trees.
“They look real.”
“They are. He's been working on fusing living organs to cyber-controls for some time. A hawk's eye, a dog's nose, they are superior to anything man could create. That's why he is so keen on neuro-processors.”
A granite boulder the size of the truck forced the road away from the river. A pair of cat eyes stared from the middle of the rock and Tobacco Brown reached for her proton cannon. “I don't like this place.”
“It takes some getting used to. Mr. Fujeta ain't evil but he has a thing for the fear. He's got his pretty spots once you get past the defenses.”
“I really don't like this place.”
“Don't flip out. I ain't positive what will happen but I'm sure it would be fucked up and so you just sit tight and catch a breath. You start firing that thing and he'd probably remove your soul and leave the corpse standing as a trophy.”
After another hundred yards, th weird woods opened and a bevy of earth-berm buildings formed a semi-circle around a large fountain. A copper dragon sat in the fountain, scrubbing it's back with a dragon-sized brush.
“I like that.”
A thick layer of grass carpeted the buildings and all but the driveway. Tobacco watched the colors shift from green to red to blue to gold as they came around the fountain.
“Heya visitors” Mr. Fujeta bounced out of the center earthen house. “It's good to see you, Benjamin, now that we are away from that quack under the river. Too much time underground is bad for you. Have you ever seen the cave monsters? The most grotesque formations of life I have had the chance to observe. How you feeling, Mr. Ben?”
“I'm on my way to a stupid doom and I just had a doctor cut at me for three hours after coming back from a shit storm in a swamp and you shoved something in my spine that has me all fucked up.”
“I can't do anything about all that. It was the past, you know. You look healed and you sound like poo so I note the shot as a success. That's excellent. And lovely Lady Brown the Hunter, it is a pleasure to have your company on this special day. What is the nature of your visit?”
“Business, you know that.”
“Yes, business. It's all people think about. Silly people. Salvation through work, death in business is what they don't realize. How do you like my new lawn?
“Stick around long enough and it will play with you, telling a thousand stories, some only you may know.”
“That's weird shit Mr. Fujeta.”
“You know me, Mr. Ben, purveyor of the weird.”
“Can we get moving? I've got to see Mr. Patton to the wall. The Mayor is an anxious man.”
“A nervous wreck is what he is and remember that patience is the least valued commodity in America's obscure history. Everyone's so damned worried about getting something done. My success only came through diligence to detail and tortoise steps.”
“You lying old man,” Benjamin chuckled, “you told me you were tweaked out, running seven days, twenty-three hours a day, not stopping until you made it happen.”
“Damn your memory and I might have been exaggerating when I said that.” Mr. Fujeta laughed as he led them through the round glass door he had come through.
A playful and nervous symphony of druggist sights and sounds greeted them. Bubbling, blipping, whirring and steaming vials trembled on a table that wrapped around the inside. A lithe woman in a simple, green dress and long rubber gloves sang fluorescent melodies as she used a mortar and pestal. A stove stood in the center of the large room. Pipes sprang from the top like Medusa's hair and a fire blazed inside.
“Let's have a seat.” Mr. Fujeta gestured toward a violet sofa wrapped around the firebox. A pair of greyhounds was asleep on either end of the couch.
Benjamin stared at the flame as he sat. The furnace was made of clear brick reflecting and dancing from the reactions within. He watched the flame twindle around a basin of water and steam drifting into the narrowest pipe. Everything had its own color and the vapor was clear blue as it skated through the pipe migrating all around the domed ceiling. He wished he could join the steam and settle into the distance of things. In the swirling, directional dance of gas he saw himself carried away from his definitive location and from that small place maybe he could look back at himself and know who he was.
“Water invigorated the greats.” Mr. Fujeta was searching through a bookshelf formed the base of the table. After some agitated searching he handed am ancient manuscript to Tobacco Brown. “This is the Codex Leicaster, Leonardo Da Vinci's splendid study of the mechanics of the fluid.”
Benjamin recognized the slim book since he was the one who had procured it for the Mayor's Science Advisory when re-eingineering the Generator. Mr. Fujeta made an immaculate copy of the original and Benjamin was able to make the change with no one noticing.
“You see, Leonardo studied the fluid from the artist's eye. He may have felt that he was being scientific in his research and he was but he thought as a painter and that is how one should try to understand these texts. It's like talking to a barber about law or a fisherman about God or a pastor about fishing. Amazing stuff if you know how to seek the right questions.”
“Yes, astounding but what does that have to do with Ben and me?” Tobacco Brown handed the book back to Mr. Fujeta. He got up to put the text away and then started clanging away in some cabinets. After a half dozen tries and a hiss of murmurs, he returned with what appeared to be the perfect skipping stone.
“This hand-held has the complete briefs for everything you need. I could explain it to you but that would be a waste of my time since everything I know of the Mayor's plan is on here. It's coded to be used by Benjamin and no one else.” He handed the black stone to Ben, who put it in his pocket without breaking his fire-born daze.
“Is he okay?” Tobacco Brown wondered aloud.
“Oh, he'll be fine. Ben is a strong fellow but I think he has pushed himself to the edge and he's starting to see where he stands. His spirit, chi, soul, self, whatever you want to call it, has been tapped for the Mayor's rush. I tried to tell him that Benjamin needed more time to heal but that was not allowed and so I had to use a special process to get him to strength quickly. The problem is that people are not machines and you can't just fix them. People are of the class of beings that can only alter themselves. We can't rebuild his flesh; we can only aid his body to heal. It is designed to operate with careful steps which is odd because the mind runs like a wild boar. People are a mockery of themselves, a paradox, an anomaly of contradiction. I have devoted my life to studying them and I wonder if it's pointless.”
“Heavens no. We would be fucked without Femrol and you know that.”
“Would we? It's not as if we would be extinct. All it did was save enough lives to preserve the status quo.”
“That's bunk. Our Environmental Resuscitator is one big example why. We don't treat energy like it's free and we don't send strong youth to war.”
“Battle is reserved for the frail and the imprisoned and that is perhaps for the best but it does not seem like a great change when people are still sent to destroy unknown enemies. I am glad to hear enthusiasm in your response. It's a summer's breeze.”
Benjamin was listening enough to see himself in the discussion. “I wish I had been a teacher or farmer. My time has been spent taking and I'm getting old from it. I guess it's the old refrain that you become what you do and what have I done but be a low down punk.”
“You do what I ask in the Capitol and you will be anything but.”
“How? I'm just putting up with this shit because I like my blood inside of me and I ain't got nothing better to do. That's about as selfish and stupid as it gets, if you ask me.”
“Selfless people only exist in the books written by the most selfish of people.”
“That doesn't really change my position. If you were sending me to kidnap Jesus, would that make me a son of Satan? I'm getting tired of getting screwed by the lot of y'all and me letting it happen.”
“You surly bastard. You need to stop meditating on your existence and get into the action. Trust your instinct and come visit me when you get back. I will be most anxious to hear about the adventure. You will be the technician of my greatest experiment and that is very exciting.” Mr. Fujeta had gotten up helping Benjamin to his feet. After staring Ben in the eyes to see if he had registered he turned to Tobacco, “Lady Brown, I am aware that the Mayor has things for you to do but I am asking of you to stay with Benjamin to the end. Too much is at stake for one man and I believe you have personal matters to attend to in the Capitol.”
The dynamic woman looked at Mr. Fujeta as if he had read her diary. “I'll consider it.”
“That won't slice my apples, I need to know you are committed beyond considering or I will not allow this fool's errand to leave my grounds. I have too much at stake and Mr. Patton is too valuable a man to treat like this. Don't be ashamed about what I know, I don't believe in vengeance but you are not wrong in your motives and the ends do justify the means. If you can give me a good reason to not demand this of you then I may consider my request.”
“There is none.”
“It is settled then.”
Tobacco Brown had no chance to disagree and she was not convinced that she should and so she did not.
Mr. Fujeta led his two guests to the door, he did not want to see them leave but he knew that all great causes required sacrifice. He let Ms. Brown out and made a small bow, “When you return, we shall have the luxury of time and you will have a chance to see the wonders that abound in this place.”
“I look forward to it but don't write anything down because I'm not betting on coming back. It isn't just my creed but I believe it more than I usually do.” She shook the old man's hand and walked toward the truck. On her way she noticed the lawn shifting and forms of color coming to be and they told the story of Hank the angry Crustacean and Wendy the Otter visiting Neptune to answer the riddle of the sea. It was a tale her father told her when the nightmares and pounding chaos outside their bunker kept her awake. She had forgotten over the years and wanted to be lost in the warm embrace of the the story unfolding in the twinkling blades of grass.
“Benjamin, you take care and take lots of pictures.” Mr. Fujeta shouted at the apathetic hero as he started the truck. Benjamin laughed and felt almost like he was worth a damn.
“I guess your coming with me,” Benjamin stated as they back through the pecan groves and past the dancing sculptures and to the highway, “ and so I figure I should learn to put up with you. What was that about your motives?”
“It's a long story and I don't feel like telling. You might find out but let's just agree that I'm along to help you in exchange for a ride for now.”
“What do you know about the Centaurians?”
“I know that they are the last group I want to fuck with and I sure as hell don't need to be going to the Nest, or whatever it is they call it.”
“Do you have any useful information since that is exactly where we are headed.”
“I've just heard stories and only one first hand account. That was in a bar in Krakow, this cat in there worked for some European engineers and they wanted to know what the hell was going on over here. The thing is the Centaurians use collective thought so well it verges on telepathy. This is why they are so hard to fight, it's like a damn hydra. They are very aggressive in sucking folks straggling through their lands into the herd. It doesn't matter if they blow your arms off since they are just going to build a machine around your corpse. All they need is a heart, brain, and spinal column that was recently working to turn you into one of them.”
“What the hell are we supposed to do?”
“I'm not sure. That guy, Finnegan, I think it was, was sent to gather information and so he could move fast which we will be doing but we've got to stop and get our shit while we're there.” Benjamin had pulled up the on screen maps and set the course to the Smoky mountains. After the computer took control he took his new hand held from his pocket. “The rat bastard forgot to tell me how to work this thing.” Benjamin examined the equipment but it appeared to be nothing but a stone and he began to wonder if Mr. Fujeta was setting him up for something.
“Can you call him?”
“Mr. Fujeta only speaks in person. This thing here is the closest he gets to telecommunicating. I better get it figured out or we're screwed.” He tried vocal commands. “Power on. On. Wake up. Work you useless piece of shit.” None of them worked. It was too frustrating for him and so he decided to rest his eyes and deal with the details of the trip later. The smooth device was in his hand as he let his inner monologue ramble. At some point through a journey of half ideas and unseen fears, the voice seperated by the first fronds of sleep asked the stone a question on the New Captiol. Voices jolted Benjamin awake and he searched to find the source.
“You hear that?” He asked Tobacco Brown, who was busy with her laptop.
“Hear what? It sounds like someone is reading an encyclopedia entry or something.”
“No. Are you one something?”
“Not sure.” Benjamin listened until he realized he was hearing the reading voice in his head. He was also seeing images of people and places he had never seen. He focused on the voice until he decided to ask it a new question. “Who are you?”
“The computer in your hand. I was deigned by Mr. Fujeta and made to provide all the information you may need.”
Benjamin looked down at the stone set to asking it about the Centaurians, the Capitol, the processors, the Mayor and all points between but he mostly stuck his findings to the Centaurians.
Some of the hill people had made heavy bunkers for the attacks many believed would never come. They had buried their future in the Appalachians and as soon as first of H-bomb incinerated Washington, they went into hiding. The Army took control of the east and set to making it an automated armory. Robots could survive the fallout and the new Capitol was under construction on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The official U.S. count was “total annihilation five hundred miles from Washington D.C., New York City, and Boston” but small clans of hill people survived the blasts and the sickened atmosphere. They were overlooked as the convict work crews erected the capacitor fields that would power the armories. The Environmental Rectifier caused an unending stream of electrical storms trying to purge the earth. Lightening rods placed on every mountain top sent the captured flashes down an array of transmission lines to large slow-release capacitors on the eastern slope. The method worked to power the unending lands of robot plants and refineries but it brought insidious change to the Appalachians. Ancient lands became malicious with the imbalance of positive and negative energy, the men an women who lived deep in these mountains changed with them. They first came from their caves to steal from the scrap trains returning from the western battle zone. The trains were heaped with arms, legs, canons, wiring, power cells and anything else salvaged from the fighting fields. By then, the mountain families had fallen so deep within the mean spirited mountains that they had learned some of the primordial arts while developing them through cult rituals.
He paused the lecture and summarized it for his passenger.
“So they are crazy, mean, and one with the land. I hate fighting the spiritual warriors, it takes a small army to take one down. They still bleed but that is only part of what keeps them alive. What you have told me doesn't help, it just makes it more troubling. We need information that is useful for strategy.”
“Working on it.” Benjamin resumed his studies as Tobacco Brown put her computer away and watched the rolling lands come toward her and disappear. They had left the communes and private forts in the past and moved into the agricultural lands divided into strips that stretched as far south as she could see. Elevated rails bounded the segments of mixed crop fields and long beams spanned the rails. A gaggle of cords twisting in and around the beams crawling methodically along the tracks brought power, water, light, and nutrients with them across the beam so that it could be dispersed on the crops without the slightest step of a man. A cleansing light glowed beneath the beam and the plants beneath were green and strong. The structures gave the farmers access to till, plant, cultivate, and harvest. It was a newer take on old methods developed by a small circle of farmers.
The genetic seed producers had tried to engineer plants that would not be affected by the foul clouds of war and oil. It was the way of the future until a series of ugly plagues killed a third of the remaining population. A few small growers developed clean crops with mixed fields and pure seeds that were progeny of a past that clung to by a few. This small group quickly accrued control of most of the arable land. They built the rail and bridge system to have superior control of the land without having to employ anybody but mechanics. Their knowledge was priceless and they guarded it like a guild secret of old Europe. Every nation had bombs but few produced food with such success and that was the real source of the United States'. The Unified Federal Authority offered the Sustainable Agricultural Coalition 15% control of the UFA in exchange for the Coalition's land and governance. United States leaders worried many sleepless nights as the Coalition considered the offer and declared a holiday when the farmers released their statement.
“We are bit simple people of the land committed to tending to it so that it may forever bring us nourishment. As such, we do not identify with any ruling body but of God and Earth so we find it impossible to remain true to what has brought us strength and coalesce ourselves with the Federal Authority,” or as Buster Toarmino insisted in the meetings, partial ownership of shit is shit.
The Federal Authority and a number of other ruling bodies sent spies to try to steal information from the Agricultural Coalition but they did not have knowledge so information they managed to secure was useless. After the Coalition discovered some of the spies, it hired biker outfits to protect its property. The Darkside Rebels roamed the plains region for a few years before it disbanded. It was easy and lucrative work. The group leader would be informed of the breach and the gang would ride to the location, find the spy and leave him on the roadside with shattered knees and no hope. Benjamin swore off killing after watching a Siberian man beg of his lord as vultures came to peck at his spilled entrails. Some of the Rebels would get hard at the thought of pulling the trigger but Benjamin saw it as theft of the higher will. He followed no particular god but he choices of death belonged to the divine. The promise was broken on a few occasions when he had to choose between his life or that of the person firing at him.
“Centaurians propagate the race through natural methods as well as immersion of outsiders. Immersion occurs when they draw people in with telepathic calls from the Governor that grow in strength as the prey partially succumbs to the negative balance of the territory. The prey loses strength and the constant calls from the tribe convince him or her to surrender where he will be carried to a transformation. Limbs are removed and replaced with soldier-bot parts stolen from the scrap trains. Because the prey is not born into the Herd, a neuro-processing unit is injected into the skull that trains him in the cult arts of the Herd and joins him to the Governor.
When the Herd is engaged in immersion of an prey, it focuses on the task until completion of the Rites that recognize the prey as one of the Herd. The single mindedness of the Herd is the source of its strength but can be used for diversion.” Benjamin stopped the session.
“I think I found our way in.” He said as he pulled on the maps of the Centaurian territories on the screen.
“How much of a ruckus can you make?”
“I could blow these crazy fools off the map.”
“That would be easier. What we need is for you to keep them busy while I try to find a processor and the Mind.”
“They won't want to kill you but they will be in your head, trying to get you to surrender to them.”
“What's so difficult about that? Remember, I'm a stubborn bitch.”
“You're gonna have to be more than that. They will be trying to brainwash you.” He was finding the topographic maps of the region and they were of little help. “Fuck.”
“I've got a basic layout of the area where they live but nothing detailed enough to be of use. This is looking pointless and straight suicidal. We've got to have a better plan.”
Benjamin turned looked past the computer and to the slow rise of mountains in the distance. In the rear view, he spotted a brief glimpse of the smoldering sun as it dipped below the cloud layer and behind the horizon. The lands behind them glowed faintly in the rose light. He had tried, once, to chase the setting sun to be in that same moment for eternity but night caught up with him and he was angry with the cruel world for denying him something so simple.
Bars of light moved all around as the machinery of the fields tirelessly worked and the road before them turned up and into black skies sliced with a thousand bolts of lightening. The first groans of thunder reached the truck and the two lost souls drove headlong into the madness.
“There is no way. I guess we'll just do what we can and then be turned into psychotic-hillbilly cult killers. Maybe it ain't all that bad. I mean, not having to decide for myself would be nice. A lot less worry, for sure. Fuck the Mayor and his dumb dreams. They aren't my hopes. Why should I worry about people in the New Capitol? For all I know, they're perfectly content. That's what Dalana said. That's what all the artists and singers leaving the the Federal Authority say. 'It's perfectly fine if you redefine freedom' is what Dalana said.” He paused the internal questioning to admire his passenger.... “What's she doing here? Mr. Fujeta said something about personal reasons..”
“What was Mr. Fujeta talking about before we left?”
Tobacco Brown had been half dreaming when the question stuck through. She knew that Benjamin was no fool and would ask her at some time but she did not want to tell him. It was not that she disliked the man, it was just that explaining to Ben would bring the secluded past to her immediate state and force her to feel what she had long suppressed.
“It was nothing.”
“I call bullshit.”
“We both have our reasons and I'm not asking about yours.”
“Mine is the chance to live. It's not a good one but it's better than my alternatives. Besides, maybe listening to you will clear my head enough to make a sensible plan appear from the void.”
“Ok. I want to hear your story in return.”
“Mine ain't nothing you ain't heard already.”
“I doubt that.” She smiled and his normal self would have stopped the truck and ravished her beauty.
“I was married.”
“No,” her voice turned soft and distant, “I was pregnant. My son would be eighteen this month. My husband was a Captain in the Special Forces. We lived on the Gulf Coast in a two bedroom cottage on the Naval Base.”
“Did he have a name, what did he look like?”
“John T. Sullivan was the most handsome man I ever saw. He was strong and gentle, angry yet compassionate. A woman like me needs a man like him and they are damn hard to find. I was young and so grateful to have John and before long, I was carrying his son. It was so exciting and so frightening. The Conflict Region Treaty was to be signed and I was hoping for a future without the constant hellfire. I would be a small part with my family trying to rebuild a good place in the ruins of the old.
“I should have known, should have suspected. We lived too well for a Captain's salary but I never asked. You see, John was a point man for the Latin Revolutionary Front. He was part of the group who kidnapped the Mexican President. After that success, the Front asked John to assist them in removing the Federal Authority Director and help Marco Aurello gain the seat. They offered him a lot of power and money. John, my husband, turned them down. The Interior Defense Council caught wind of the plan and John's involvement.
“I knew none of this and lot of people would still be living if I did. My first explanation came as our doors were kicked in one night. John told me to run and I tried. I made it out the window and dropped down to the side yard. I was going as fast as I could when two Defense officers tackled me. One took out my legs and the other hit me from behind. I was a helpless and pregnant woman in a nightgown and nothing else but they came for me. I could feel my baby recoil inside and die as I heard them dragging my husband out while beating him to no end. They threw him in a air-car and I never knew what happened. I prayed that he died in the car but of prayers only help those with hope.
“They locked me up for six months and after a hundred serrum treatments and general torture, they concluded that I was ignorant and could be released. Locked in my white room, I made a blood oath to kill everyone responsible. Now, they wish they had killed me since I left the prison and went home to find John's hidden gunsafe and one of his old computers. My search of men and information caught the attention of Mayor Winterfeld. He said he could help me in return for my services and now I'm here.”
“Have you honored your oath?”
“There is one more.”
“And I'm guessing it's someone in the Capitol.”
“It's none other that the Chairwoman of the Inner Defense Council.”
Benjamin watched the witch's brew of night storms and retold the tale to himself.
“You know, that is the worst story I have heard in a long time.”
“How do you think I feel? I spent a lot of time trying to forget. My job with the Mayor helps. I like seeing tough guys beg for mercy, they cry out to god but he has forgotten us on this wretched planet and so I can show no mercy.”
“I'm not sure I'll argue with you. I must stretch my legs.” Benjamin grabbed the wheel and pulled the truck to the side of the road. A light rain fell and it was cold and a stiff breeze sang in the trusses. Benjamin could see the rain in a strip of clear light emaniting from the bridge creaking his way. To the east, the thick sky lit up in dancing spasms. As he paced and sucked in the hard air, letting the rain brace wake him up, heavy light threw everything in a wash. In a gush of sight and sound, an convoy of armored cargo trucks roared by. The drivers stared through their windows at the lone figure. “What was he doing?” The hollow faces asked. “Does he know where he is?”
Benjamin watched the convoy charge into the distance of his direction and decided it was time to go.
“Can you wait? I need to pee.” Tobacco asked Ben as he sat down.
The woman got out and went behind the truck. Now is the time. It would be so easy. I could just drive off. To where? Maybe a Canadian Peace Colony. I could grow fat and die without the hassle of being gunned down. He reached for the shifter and wrapped his hand around it. The decision froze him. His normal self would be halfway gone by now but he stopped. He had a mission, a goal and it gave him direction and now, as he thought of Tobacco Brown, his goal had purpose. The journey was becoming his and aso he sat and waited for his passenger.
“It's fucking cold out there.”
“That it is.”
They continued in silence. Tobacco Brown was letting the old fires of hate stir up. What would she say to the Chairwoman when she saw her and how much pain would she inflict before snapping the spine of the woman who had destroyed her happiness? Benjamin found a small piece of his strength at admitting to his part in the plan. Purpose was never an issue with him. It was not a question worth asking because it had no answer. He was not a learned man but he understand some of the plight of the philosopher and preacher.
“You asked me about my story.” He broke the silence.
“It's up to you.”
He told her what he could recall of his mother and the conducter and the ballcap with gold lettering. “I left the Darkside Rebels when I was sixteen and bounced around doing what I could for awhile. I ended up in the city and got a job at the Yards. After a few weeks of that hell I went up to the foreman and told him I wasn't going to make it loading ships. He asked me “what can you do?” “I can drive,” is what I say to him and he looked at me and saw the Rebels brand on my arm and said ,”Boy, you're too young to drive the big trucks but I've might have something for you.” He handed me a small bag and sent me to Mr. Fujeta's house. It wasn't as crazy then but I'm sure the foreman figured I would flip out but I didn't. Over the next few years, I continued being a delivery boy until a few of the people I was dropping off to wanted to further my involvement. I left my job at the Yards. The foreman knew what was going on and he just said to watch my back. I was working mostly for the art dealers and Mr. Fujeta. Well, I end up needing to steal a painting for the Museum. It was the first time I snuck into the airport, I was freaked out, you couldn't have fit a cunt hair between my asscheeks they were so tight. I got it and after I delivered it to the back gate I decided to see what the hell happened there.
I was walking through a sculpture room and there was this gorgeous wild-haired woman running her hands over a stone figure. She was pretty, not stunning, but she had it and she was like a nerve-ending of god and she created. She made a room feel better when she walked in and her place was full of books and paints and flowers and things she had made. She tried to make something beautiful in a world gone ugly.”
“I had to make my first long run to the Latin border. That's when I lost my hand. It tool me two months to get back and by then I was ready to turn it in and find local work. She had changed, she said it was my fault for being gone so long and she grew upset with a place that took her one bright light and it made her weak. She had become a firnd and there was nothing I could do. I tried for a few weeks to break the habit but you know how it is.
“You make me sad.”
“Yeah, I was upset for awhile and threw myself into whiskey and work. I've seen a few women since but she was the only one that I longed for and this bullshit place wouldn't let it happen. That's why I took on the longest and dumbest trips because it got me away. I hate Memphis but it ain't any better anywhere else. It's all shit and we're the asshole.”
They had come up the plateau and the into the outer bands of the rage. The fields had dissipated into gouged lands laced with transmission lines. Hard and gnarled trees walled the road. A fierce wind swirled through and shot down the road, shaking the truck with each mean gust and the rain was loud. The road climbed in long runs up, down, and around the ancient mountains. Water swifted under bridges barely high enough and the lightening shattered relentlessly. Benjamin throttled the truck down and had the onscreen overlay a radar over the maps and waited. After thirty miles, he saw the first signs. It was a cross made from motorcycle parts and transmission wire. A skull sat atop. He looked at his map and there was no way of telling where to go and no way to know what to do.
“At least we're near.”
They were coming around and down. A cliff shot up on side and the other dropped to a valley. At the base of it, they saw the first encampment. A garage leaned near the road with piles of robotics inside. A power line spliced from a transmission tube fed the bright lights of the ramshack building. A small pen was attached to the side held a family of goats with empty eyes and an old woman with mechanical arms fused to her body stood out front. She stared as they drove by and then turned to go inside with a jerking gait.
Tobacco Brown had the photon cannon in one hand and an EMP grenade in the other. They kept climbing and diving, twisting and turning. They passed more cobbled shacks and more signs but mostly passed through woods that tried to push into the road. Trees had reached across the top in an attempt to trap the travelers.
“How are we ever going to find our way, much less a little processor in this. No one but they know where it is.”
“You're a damned genius.”
“We're gonna let them take us in.”
“Got a better plan.”
“Please, feel free if you do.”
“Forgetting about it and driving off.”
“We're in too deep for that.”
Benjamin was starting to feel the sinister call of the land. It was angry and felt of the scorn lover's heart eaten by revenge, ready to strike at anyone or anything. The eroded giants had taken care of men for eternity and all that was given was destroyed in flash. Now the men had cast the land in darkness and it would use its powers to shake them. Humanity was a rash and it needed scrubbed off. Kill them, kill them all. Taste the flesh and smell the blood as the cries of the savage race died at the hands of its giver. The human experiment had failed. That was the call and it drizzled in like February rain.
“I've got too much to deal with to listen to this shit,” he told himself. “This one track mind is already running through an obstacle course and whatever it is trying to tell me otherwise is just gonna have to take a number.” The argument worked because it was true. He grew fiercly irritable but did not fall into the trap. Tobacco Brown, meanwhile was dreaming of the kill and readying to have a glorious end for the cursed mountains.
“You feel that.”
They came around a high ledge and in the electrial eruptions, she could make out a row of the capacitors in the visible distance, white dots far away. Down they went once more and whispers sifted around her.
“Come with us. We will take care of you. Be one and the mountain will love you. It's warm here. Warm and safe and quiet. Come. Forget the past. The trees will embrace you. The rains will cleanse you. All will be absolved. All will be done.” They grew more as they dove down. They angered Benjamin. He hated the lightening and the rain and the thousand voices. It was another disguise and he was tired of masks and lies. They could have it all. Fuck the Mayor, if he wanted something so bad, he should get it his own damn self.
Through the shadows beneath the sparkling skies, he saw four of them come from the woods and stop in the middle of the road. He took the wheel and stepped on the gas. The big motor roared and he could feel the machine spring to life. A hundred yards turned to fifty to five. They were visible now. Bodies of men fused to motorbikes. They had hooks, claws, cannons, and saws for arms and wore heavy helmets with hoses running from the mouth into the bowels of the robotic skeleton. He braced for the squeal and screech of impact but there was none. The four Centaurians were in the rear view as he watched a hook fired at the back of his truck and hit just above the camera. They hook was attached to a cable that they attached to a thick ring which was secured to twisted Osage/ or some other. Benjamin had no choice but to slam the breaks. The tires broke lose and he was sliding. Tree trunks thrashed the sides and he was skidding toward the edge. The truck jolted and stopped moving forward but momentum carried it to the edge and Benjamin saw a swollen river fifty yards below. “Thud” The truck was stopped headlong down the embankment by a hefty oak.
“Come on woman. Take care of those punks while I get us unstuck.” H looked over and the seat was empty and the door was open. The calls were screaming at him and rain blew in through the door.
“Fuck.” She had left the EMP grenade behind. Benjamin picked it up, grabbed his plasma rifle from behind the seat and ducked out the door. He was soaked immediately as he ran through the woods with the road at eye level, following the taut cable. Tobacco Brown was walking in the middle of the road. To call her would have brought attention to himself and so he just kept a few steps behind and in the darkness of the woods. She had reached the four and they were waiting. Their motors sang through the rains as they secured her to the back of the track-mounted one. Benjamin watched them turn and head through a clearing in the woods he had not seen in the first pass and he raced back to the truck, sliding and tripping along the way. The third plasma blast melted the cable and he was in the cab, hoping he could pull out of the spot. Tires spun but grabbed nothing but mud and soaked leaves. He got out and began fumbling with the winch. Cold hands were failing him and urgency pushed him to the point of frantic. It was one lever he needed to push to release the cable drum but he was pulling too soon and the winch wanted to jam. On his last try, he managed to free the spool and ran with the cable to wrap it around a tree on the other side of the road. The motor shuttered and grumbled but it reeled in the line, pulling the truck onto the road. Benjamin unhooked the line and let it wind up the rest of the way, he could see himself hauling ass through unknown roads with the hook dangling free only to catch a transmission line and fry the whole truck with him inside. The opening was were he remembered and he turned into it onto a path just wide enough for him to scrap both sides of the vehicle. A mile through dense woods he bumped and bounced until the path split.
“Son of a...what's next?” He spat as he got out with the rifle and the grenade.
“Come with us.” A grinding call said to him. Nothing was in sight but it kept tearing into his head.
“Leave it behind. Give in to the call. The pain will be your friend.”
“Where are you!” Benjamin yelled as the heavens bombarded him. “Come out here and fight, you low down punk!”
The next cracks of light revealed a monstrosity before him. A woman's body was sitting on six legs. She was two feet taller than Benjamin and her right arm was a long blade. His first shot blasted one of the legs off and sent her charging straight at him. A thousand cries filled the air and he was firing away as more ensemble hellions came up the same path she was on.
He ran down the other one while letting the plasma rifle tear the world apart. The bug lady was on three legs and screaming wildly. He stopped and watched her head incinerate with a well placed shot. The rifle was hot and it felt good in his stiff hands. He sprinted down the free path until he heard the banshee cries coming toward him and he decided it was time to cut to the other side. Straight into the thick belly of the forest he fought and pushed for. Sirens were wailing somewhere ahead and the air hummed with electricity. Something was following his trail into the trees slapping and scraping him bare. The thrashing behind him was gaining and he was slowing. Lungs and legs were fire in the rain would not stop. Lights beyond the next line of trees and movement everywhere. He dropped to crawl to where he could see what was out there. He was on the high ground and he could see the path come down from his right into a large with two quonset hut beside each other and a pigpen nearest him. The siren hollered from the top of the round buildings as a legion of Centaurians streamed out of one. Their cries pierced the already foul air. Tobacco Brown was nowhere to be seen. He figured she was in one of the long huts but did not know and he had only one grenade. Everything depended on it. The pulse from the blue can in his hand would scatter the circuitry of everything in the clearing but more would come and she had to be down there. Screams, cries, pleas, and calls pushed his thoughts out and his followers were almost on top of him.
“Fuck it.” He murmured and crawled free from his hiding space. “Hey. Y'all. I'm up here!” He fired the rifle on auto for the bastards to really know. The swarming mass turned and perceived as the figure of a man hurled something toward them and then turned to send a glowing round into a member of the Herd's chest.
Everything went white and then black. Benjamin was fighting to see through flash burned eyes. Cries were faint as half machines flailed and failed. His legs went to running and he was hellfire with a plasma rifle. Past the pigpen, past the first building he was dodging the crippled Centaurians and the voices spit gibberish and faded. Instinct sent him to the second building and he ran in. The lights were out but the place was half alive with movement.
“You in here!” He shouted.
“I think,” she moaned. He ran to the voice and damned himself for forgetting a flashlight as he tripped over nest of cables on the floor. As he tried to get up, something grabbed his arm and clamped with machine force, making him to drop the rifle.
“Aarghdieshitnut,” came out as one word as swung at the unseen with his own metal hand. He struck and the clamp tightened. More sounds of steel scraping around and something was biting into his ankle.
“Now you die,” was the dry rattle in the air and Benjamin closed his eyes. He waited and set to making peace with himself, knowing that he had done the best he could and all went white.
The vise released on his wrist and the space was quiet.
“Yea.” On his feet he saw a light before him and Tobacco Brown was holding it.
“Let's get the hell out of here.”
“What about the Mind?”
“What about us?”
“Look, I ain't enjoying this place but we're here so we might as well and see if we can get our shit and go.” He walked toward her in the beam and surveyed the area. Bodies spasmed in a circle on the dirt floor. A cross stood in the middle and Tobacco Brown was standing in front of it. The cords he had tripped on ran to the metal cross. She was following them with the light. They traced across the floor to a pedestal. A green robed Centaurian was curled on the floor next to the pedestal with meat saw as one hand and a syringe in the other. Benjamin ran and picked up the needle and inspected the pedestal. A carved urn sat atop. It did not appear to be attached to anything but he could feel all things vibrate and shift as he neared it.
“I'm guessing this is it.”
“Just grab and it let's go.”
It was in his hands and he could see the realm of the Mind. It knocked him back and he lurched like a punch drunk boxer. He tucked the urn under his left arm and flailed with his other. Tobacco Brown grabbed the free hand and pulled him along. She let go to hurl another grenade out the door and then they were outside. Benjamin did not feel the cold or the rain. Gusting squalls were silence to him. He watched as Tobacco Brown danced and dodged and raged hellfire from her photon cannon at anything and everything. He knew he was supposed to be doing something but he the Mind was showing him what the Herd felt, anguish and rage. Terrified cries to release the urn. It was trapped and in the clutches of a member of the race of destroyers. He wanted to smash the smooth wood, set it on fire and release himself from the burden.
Tobacco Brown was shouting at him, waving, asking him something.
“Where's the truck?” The storm had strengthened and the lightening blazed in all corners. Trees cracked and fell around them and Benjamin was standing with the rootball under one arm lost in the folds of its primordial power. The hills were screaming with the desperate calls of Centaurians and she could sense them coming from all points. She had one grenade and could never fight them all off. She fired at three coming from the other building, three times a helmeted skull shattered. They still moved but with no control and two had tangled with each other. They would be surrounded soon, thousands of hell-born men coming for their totem to immortality.
“Of course.” She said to herself as she hurried to grab Benjamin. Grabbing his free hand in her left, she pulled a --- grenade from her belt and held the plunger down. She held it high over her head and walked down the middle of the path toward the road. Voices grew scared.
“No. You would never. The spirit will save us.” They could sense the danger and stopped at the edge of the clearing when they saw the devil woman with the device held high. Attacking would not do. Tobacco Brown smiled when she saw the Centaurians stop in the near sight of rain choked night. They were close enough to hear the ventilators and gyroscopes click and whir. She continued with careful steps for a slip in mud would bring instant closure. Gradually, they walked up the path and she could make out the truck. She would need to move quickly when they reached it and she desperately needed her driver. He was a lone soul walking through an fog of frightened spirits. The faces appeared and he could see past the helmets and to the gaunt expressions pleading for what was theirs. They were weak with sadness and confused by fear. What would they do without their legacy? He wanted to give them the bundle like a scrap to the cold and homeless. A door opened, he was pushed onto a seat. He knew the place but not so well as the faces staring through the glass at him. Something grabbed at the urn. He wouldn't let go.
“Damnit, Benjamin. Let go and drive.” He just sat and looked at the Centaurian on the other side of his door. “Sorry.” She jabbed a stungun into his neck and he released the urn as he spasmed and his head fell forward. She lifted up the sensous wooden vessel and it hated her. It burned and she carried the agony long enough to throw it in the back seat.
“What the hell?” Benjamin was opening his eyes and he was surrounded by Centaurians. “I think we might be fucked.”
“Just drive and let me do the talking.” Tobacco Brown was opening and closing her scalded hands and chambering the EMP grenade into the launcher on her cannon.
“You might have to explain it to me.”
“We've got the Mind and they think I'm about to blow it up with us.”
“Oh.” He was remembering the recent past and the pieces began to fall into place. “Hold on.” He turned the truck on and around. Not that it was easy. He was starting to feel like the stories of dead white men entering new lands—Cortez?---. They were ready to bow down to him. The grinding, oil smeared arms, wheels, legs following his every move ready to kill or kneel. If only they had killed, would it all be different. What does it matter questioning the past, it is not as if I could redo it or anything is ever gonna be the exact same again.
Tobacco Brown had ever idea of every intention of hers. The robed bastard had succeeded in raping her and was on course to take the last ounce of her mind. They would feel her wraith and it would the fury of savage moons.()
“Get us the sweet fuck out of here.” She yelled and then got out and into the back. Between water cans, tools, and motors she kneeled with the grenade in and shouted for Benjamin.
“Go. You bastard. Drive.”
Okay. He started off on a Sunday jog and the circle opened and fell into the rest of the flock behind him. She held her fire. The driving was fun. The rain and wind played a symphony on trees and truck and he enjoyed it. It felt new to smile, one breath shy of alive. He stepped on the gas.
“Hold on, baby, it's gonna get bumpy.” They bounced and shot up the hill and down to the road they tumbled. The rain felt like needles in her back but she was focused on the breaking line following. The dense forest opened and she was thrown to one side and looked up to see pavement sliding away. Centaurians were starting to pour onto the road. She shot off the EMP grenade. Blue white burst and a Centaurians were skidding on useless bodies, piling up and stopping up the road. She loaded the anti-gravity grenade and placed a shot just past the middle of the scrum. Truck windows shattered and hell squal thunder shattered the earth. Benjamin didn't know what to do but drive and now he wanted to get away. He had enough fuel to do a hard run to get past the capacitor farms. The few Centaurian that might keep up would not go so deep into new country. He had hoped that it wouldn't come to this but that's the way it was. His ears were bleeding from the shock wave and glass from the side window pricking him all over. The windshield was still intact or he would be in trouble.