Firsch County Wayside Number Two, the Kentucky-Tennessee border, February of the Fifty-sixth year of the Kurian Order: the recent violent winter, the worst in living memory for even the tough locals, has ebbed at last. Nothing that might be called spring warms the sky; rather, it is a quiet between-season pause, like the lassitude between the break in a life-threatening fever and recovery.
One winter can do only so much damage. At an old intersection between two neglected county highways, with only one route showing even some signs of maintenance-the northbound stretch has been reduced to little more than a horse track-the Wayside squats behind a lattice of young fir. It might be a monument to entropy.
It is an enclave that could best be described as lumpy. No two structures match. The central building used to be a gas station and convenience store, still identifiable by a few chipped logos as a BP for connoisseurs of pre-22 corporate branding. It stands out from the others in that all the verticals and horizontals are square. The other structures lean as though tired: relocated sheds, prefabricated housing, a fire-gutted strip whose gap-toothed storefronts serve as an improvised garage and junkyard. A double layer of barbed-wire fencing, no two posts standing quite the same, surrounds all, pulled this way and that by the growing pines. The more observant may notice dog feces among the dropped needles between the layers of wire.
Farther off, crowds of trees and brush and brown kudzu envelop what had once been a little two-street town of houses and a barn or two.
Everything in the Wayside, from crumbling brick and trailer home to boarded-up window, is painted a formerly bright shade of orange, now faded and dirtied into a rotting pumpkin color.
Wayside Number Two looks as though it would be improved by a return of the short-lived snow. You wouldn't see the mud, for a start. The garbage mound out behind the prefabs could be camouflaged into and inviting, snowy hill. The dog litter couldn't be seen-or smelled-and white would hide the slime molds coating the bricks of the gutted strip.
For all its forlorn appearance, the gas pump and parking lot in front ticked with vehicular life.
One pair of vehicles stand out. A shining new red compact truck-or oversized, high-clearance car with a lighted roll bar and stumpy cargo bed, depending how precise one's definitions-and the bulldog shape of a heavier, ten-wheeled armored car are parked so as to block the roadside gap in the wire. A tall, muscular, alert-looking black man stands beside the compact truck, radio crackling inside. The uniformed men in the armored car are more casually disposed as they wait. They blow smoke out of their lowered windows as they play cards, using the dashboard as a table. The pitiful collection of rust buckets, motorcycles, a bike, and horse wagon nearer the Wayside's main entrance look like sheep penned by a pair of wolves.
A brown truck slows as it approaches, but the bearded driver, getting a glimpse of the Georgia Control circle-and-bar logo on the doors of both vehicles-huge on the armored car, discreet on the red compact truck-thinks better of stopping. His worn tires kick up a shower of grit as he changes up after making the turn south, suddenly eager for the horizon. ...
If there's one thing I hate, John Macon thought to himself, it's grocery shopping.
The trick, of course, was not to let on to the groceries that they were being selected. He had driven ahead, alone in his not-quite-unmarked Pooter, so the flotsam at Wayside Number Two wouldn't become alarmed at the sight of the heavier armored car holding the Reapers. Once he established there were suitable pickings at the Wayside-a quick glance through the door's glass confirmed a collection of warm bodies, none of whom looked important enough for Tennessee to miss-he'd called up the Transporter.
He strode into the dining room. They'd taught him in the Youth Vanguard how to walk authoritatively: chin up, shoulders back, a little extra strike on the bootheel. He glanced across the counter and the booths. Six hanging fluorescent fixtures containing three bulbs, two of which still managed to produce light, illuminated the sparse condiments and a desiccated piece of pie on the counter and a cash register with drawer wide open revealing only a few bills, coins, and rows of loose cigarettes, as if advertising the poor pickings a holdup would bring.
The remaining lights had a lot of work to do, despite the light of afternoon outside. What had once been enormous glass windows were filled with old sheets of aluminum siding wired together into overlapping blinds. They alternately locked and rattled in the spring wind, at least the ones that didn't have old rags stuffed into the gaps to stave off chilly drafts.
The linoleum floor interested him for a moment: there were so many cigarette burns in it one might mistake the marks for a pattern.
Macon could have described the decor on the walls without even walking in the door: the owner's business license and good conduct certificates, a tin sign proclaiming the establishment's pride in serving OneSource Foods, a glass mirror with beautiful artwork: Ringgold Beer's famous hop-picking brunette smiling over her overflowing basket, and the inevitable Royal Pep Cola sign. Probably more than one. Never mind the plates, the glasses, and a generous supply of the famous long plastic siphon-droppers for "fixing up" your beverage with flavored syrups-promising everything from eight straight hours of mental alertness to an end to anxiety to a weekend's worth of hard-ons-with the establishment's name printed on the side.
He didn't know if the English still drank their tea or the French their champagne or the Jamaicans their rum, but the people of the Georgia Control guzzled Royal Pep Cola from dawn to dusk, with the "thousand and then some" flavor variations the Royal Pep Cola company claimed could be created from six flavorings and nine additives.
As wily market-goer, Macon calculated each purchase on a cost-versus-benefit analysis. He didn't enjoy this part of the job at all-though there were worse duties. His least favorite were his rare ventures into the dripping confines of the boss's home carbuncle-but if one wanted to rise in the Control one did the Unpleasant, for no other reason than to avoid the More Unpleasant that was the lot of the groceries.
He exchanged a glance with the angular young tough behind the counter. Muscles bulged under what was once a white T-shirt, tattooing on his right hand indicated he'd done a prison term as an adolescent. Macon gave him a friendly nod.
"Water, and a menu," Macon said, taking a seat at the end of the counter where he could scan the room.
Water appeared, in battered plastic, slightly green-the water, not the plastic-no ice.
"There's the menu," the counterman said, pointing to a painted and repainted stretch of wall over the kitchen window.
If you want to rise, do the difficult, his mentor in the Youth Vanguard used to say. The old pederast had his faults, but he'd built a comfortable, and damn near inviolable, niche in the Control.
Unlike the rest of the Advancing World, the Georgia Control had humans do all the selecting of groceries. Not just the usual disposal of the inconvenient and abrasive by the top dogs in the hierarchy. Not some, not much, but all. The Directors argued to the Kurians that humans possessed a keener instinct for sniffing out weakness, wrongdoing, and rebellion. The Kurians weren't particular. As long as the vital aura of culled humans flowed, and the rest of the population remained placid and breeding, they were inclined to let their human assistants put check marks and figures into spreadsheets determining who contributed to society and who ended up a net loss at the bottom line.
Macon approved of the system. It gave the humans running the Control a little bit of leverage. There were even rumors that a Kurian or two who'd been problematic in its demands had been removed thanks to subtle hints and pressure from the Directors.
Outside the well-patrolled borders of the Georgia Control-an area a good deal larger than the old state, and growing, its Directors were proud to report-you didn't have neat little lists and the quiet nightly pickup squads. One had to use judgement, and Macon had observed only a few excursions and the requisite grocery-selecting.
Someone had to do the difficult and nasty business of finding fodder for the Kurians. Few wanted the job, and usually the ones who wanted it sought the authority for all the wrong reasons. What sort of diseased character would want to do such a thing? Macon thought of himself as a white blood cell, keeping the system healthy and functioning. When he had to attach to and gobble up pathogens, the rest of the bloodstream was the better for it. A white blood cell that acted out of emotion, self-aggrandizement, or plain cruelty would do harm to the system.
As a junior sibling where his eldest sister was helping their father run middle Georgia's greatest city as heir-apparent urban director, he'd have to make his own way and rise on his own merit, rather in the manner of following sons in the old aristocracies.
So when a new group of Kurians sent out word that they were seeking seed-staff for expansion into Kentucky, he volunteered for the position of "Ghoul Wrangler" as the less-ambitious liked to style it. His actual title in the Control's orgbase managed to include the words "Staff" and "Facilitator" along with only a single phrasing period-if he rose to the vice-director level they'd start using commas, an elegant touch for those at that exalted level. Of course, there was that dreadful word "unincorporated" and the orgbase inactive rolls were filled with listings of ambitious Youth Vanguard souls who'd gambled their lives in unincorporated regions.
Unincorporated or no, he received a Personal Utility Transport with only 24 kils on the odometer, no visible bullet holes, and a new field-brown paint job with his name stenciled under the Pooter's driver's side window/firing slot.
His blue-black Model 18 submachine gun fit that slit quite nicely. The gun, a gift from some connection of his father at the Atlanta Gunworks, rode across his chest like a clinging bat. The counterman eyed it like a thirsty Bedouin gauging an enemy's waterskin.
He reached into a pocket of his heavy, lined-leather driving coat, and extracted a pair of antacid peppermints from a big plastic bag. He popped the button-sized tablets into his mouth and crunched them down. They tasted like peppermint-dusted chalk, but it was better than feeling that he'd swallowed hot coals. Picking out groceries always gave him a sour stomach. If he was thinking about his gut, his duties would suffer. Never mind that this particular task could be downright dangerous.
The Wayside had about what you'd expect so close to Kentucky. These backwoods Tennessee roads attracted the shady and the skeevy. Well away from the Kurians on the fringes of the Advancing World, but not quite in the limestone-cut tangles filled with suspicious, well-armed legworm ranchers who'd gut you for the half pack of cigarettes in your pocket.
Macon remembered the interview when he'd been taken on by his Kurian. Chizzb or Tschezb or something even tougher on the tongue was its name, but his small human staff called him Prince Green.
They brought him into an old security warehouse at Atlanta's barely functioning airport, perhaps the most heavily patrolled square miles in Georgia outside of the Kurian City Center downtown. The lower level still served its purpose of temporarily holding people and goods entering from outside the Georgia Control by air. The upper level, accessible only by five flights of metal stairs, looked like a giant honeycomb of ochre papier-mache.
A Reaper, two meters of solid dreadful, smiled a black-fanged smile when he offered his ID and showed the courier-delivered summons.
Prince Green looked like a cow's liver with an umbrella top and a couple of greasy mop heads stuck into it. It pulsed as it sat, though whether this was respiration or circulation he didn't know. He'd never seen one uncloaked, so to speak-usually when a Kurian interacted with men they went out and about under heavy capes, faces hidden behind helmets or veils, sometimes not even bothering to give the illusion of feet beneath the cloak. He'd been told that when they first showed up in 2022, in the wake of planetwide earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, they'd appeared as ethereal, glowing, half-angelic aliens with all the beautiful poise of a cut flower. From such a vision, the soothing words of comfort to a stricken world may have just as well been set to music.
You will excuse the informality, a decidedly nonmusical voice breathed from an unsettling point between his ears.
Sure as shootin' I will, Macon had thought back, sinking into the spongy floor. He felt something wet pull at his ankles, like living mud. He wondered if he stepped in the wrong direction if he'd sink and leave nothing but his Youth Vanguard Leader cap floating on the living floor.
This is true: I will not present myself to you in a guise more pleasing to human eyes, the inner dialogue continued. Preparations for the move into Kentucky have left me exhausted. Perhaps it is just as well. I see no point in trusting a man who needs such useless reality dressing.
"I'd rather see things as they are," Macon said, trying to fill his brain with white noise. You could bullshit a Youth Vanguard Leader when he caught you with vodka in your shampoo bottle, but Prince Green had the ability to poke around in his brain.
One old hand, the Atlanta-based director who'd sponsored him in the Youth Vanguard, had told him the worst thing you could do when facing a Kurian was try to remain calm. She'd said he should give in to whatever emotion was at hand-anger, fear, revulsion. Strong human emotions confused them, and a few caused them to flee your head like a cat off a hot stove.
Macon didn't want to screw up his first real opportunity, so he went with serene competence. It had served him well with the Reapers, and weren't they just extensions of the Kurians?
This is good: I will dispense with the aphorisms. We are moving into Kentucky shortly. Our foolish cousins north of the Ohio River have thoroughly, what is your colorful expression, shit in their own front yard. They turned a minor incursion by the resistance into a full-scale rebellion thanks to the use of a heavy hand where a light stinging slap was required, then released a half-developed and virtually untested virus. They've killed half the population and made resolute enemies of the other half. We have an opportunity to pick up the pieces so carelessly broken, if we move quickly but carefully. There are to be three new Control Districts. I will have the westernmost, and you will be on my staff, if you so accept.
Macon needed to think. Were they really moving against the rebels, or was this some kind of play against their rivals north of the Ohio? They were greedy when it came to engulfing new populations and their human servants were chips thrown on the table in long shot gambles. The Georgia Control was powerful, easily the most powerful south of the old Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi, but for all that they had only a small standing army. It stood as a safeguard against a rebellion from the more numerous police and paramilitary reserve forces and was overstretched.
This is interesting: You're wondering if we have enough trustworthy forces to operate in three entire new Control Districts. We do not. But we have enough to do a thorough job of taking over one, as we did in Alabama and Florida in the days of your fathers. For the others, mercenaries, police, and a certain amount of terror will allow us to maintain our position until control is consolidated.
"There are guerillas in Kentucky, I've heard," Macon said. He'd heard a lot of talk of one beleaguered Southern Command battalion. Evidently anyone could join up under a false name. They didn't ask any questions and gave you a new identity, basically. He'd heard some mutterings that if this or that didn't work out, the person in question would run off and join the rebels.
This is true: the legworm ranchers have assembled a small army aided by a band of renegades, a smaller force from the hillbilly rabble across the Mississippi. They're in our region, camped on the Ohio near Evansville. Your brethren on the Armed Operations Staff consider the Kentuckians the more dangerous force as they are armed and numerous and know the land. I am not convinced. Nor is Director Solon, who has some experience across the Mississippi. We must move as soon as weather allows. Once my avatars are in place we will be in a position to grind them down. So: Your first task will be to convey some of my avatars to the tower I am building in Kentucky. Speak not, I already know your answer is yes.
Prince Green shifted his weight on his perch. The goop around his ankles relaxed its grip.
Go, and we will speak again when I join my avatars in Kentucky.
"Thank you for the opportunity, my lord," Macon said, formalizing their new relationship.
Prince Green showed no sign of having heard him. Some of the tentacles were rippling. Perhaps he was animating one of his Reapers, communicating the orders to his chief of staff.
Macon left the oversized hornet's nest of the hangar roof, feeling rather like a fly walking out of a spider's web.
"Looks like we have us a new ghoul-wrangler," one of Prince Green's human security staff said.
They took him out for a celebratory meal. "Eat up. You won't see civilization again for years," Director Solon, Prince Green's chief of staff, predicted.
They plied him with good liquor and tantalizing promises, in that members-only restaurant that smelled like sizzling beef and cigars. When Kentucky was properly incorporated into the Control, there'd be plenty of new Director positions.
Which led him, after briefings and paperwork bookended by the usual indoctrination lectures from the churchmen about what tests he'd encounter in his new duties among the unincorporated, to Wayside Number Two. Prince Green's advance guard of Reapers needed feeding. The Reapers lived off the blood of its victim, while acting as a conduit for the vital auras all intelligent, emotionally resonant beings possessed.
They'd offered him a driver, but he turned them down. One of the things his father taught him was that you always needed at least one person near you at all times whose "pay chit only gets deposited if you're still breathing." He hired Casp from a reliable firm in Charleston. They bred driver/bodyguards there the way the old Roman Empire used to produce gladiators. He'd added a little extra insurance by careful selection. Casp was two meters of solid muscle and had three brothers who were also DBs. If one gave the company name a black eye, the others would suffer.
Macon judged the souls in the Wayside, and found all of them wanting in some manner or other.
Three. He'd have to take three.
Macon felt sorry for them, in a way. Or rather, he felt sorry for the person they might have been, had they not made a few bad decisions. Failure to join one of the youth movements, or to drop out of the organizations and the educational system took many down a dead end. Resentment over a relative caused a lot of bad blood. People put so much emotion into biological happenstance.
Like that heavy driver in the corner, with his patty melt. A vanabon-Macon could tell from patches all over his mesh vest. Each patch represented a key business he carried for. He probably wandered northern Tennessee, doing everything from bringing eggs to market, delivering letters and parcels and subscriptions, to making spare parts runs-probably sneaking a passenger or two discreetly among the boxes.
Macon wouldn't take him, even if the man was stuffing his food to make a hasty exit before Macon asked to look over the contents of his van. Fat men rarely were rebels.
The gal at the folding table was a possibility. He might have to talk to her to decide. Aging, weathered, still with beautiful long hair, she wore a dress of nice material in flowing patterns.
Taking his cup, he walked up to her table and she offered a welcoming smile. Her portable table was covered with spices, medicines, candles, cut-glass vials, even a couple of beautifully restored plastic dolls. She evidently made her living selling sundries to the road traffic, something nice to bring home as a surprise to the wife.
"Are the candles scented?" Macon asked.
"Scented and unscented. Cinnamon is my most popular. I have beeswax as well, you can melt the stumps down and mix in a little linseed oil and use it as furniture polish. Not cheap wicks, either, they're braided."
She was a little pushy. Macon warmed at the thought that he could snap his fingers and have her lifted out of existence. Just stick something under my nose, babe, and you'll never see another cinnamonscented moonrise.
The washroom door opened, and a youth with calf muscles like horse hooves exited. Still spotty, maybe seventeen or so. His distinctive black-and-white striped shirt had a name patch-Kurt, it read-and vertical lettering in one of the white stripes read ENCOMPASS in red letters.
Encompass was one of the New Universal Church's principal periodicals for the masses, a monthly with a beautiful glossy cover and smeared pages between. Families who wanted to stay in the good graces of their local clergy would be able to discuss the month's lead article and lead editorial. The rest of it, printed on thin, soft, not very absorbent paper that almost begged to be used for sanitary purposes, made a decent sedative. Sinecured editorialists droned on and on about obscure reclarifications of a previous perceived error in Church doctrine, which, if you thought about it correctly, wasn't really so much of a mistake as it was an example of poor word choice. At the back you usually had a useful how-to or two on how to get the most vitamin value out of sixteen hundred calories or the quickest method to check your kids for lice before and after school.
Volunteers like this kid, now turning bright red for some reason as he checked his fly, sold subscriptions and delivered it. Each issue also contained a bonus offer for some household item of dubious quality the kids had to attempt to upsell and then deliver, assuming the stock ever arrived.
Tough job. Lots of miles, no pay, and plenty of headaches thanks to the summer heat.
A woman exited the washroom after the kid, fixing the two remaining buttons on her blouse. She looked like a cowboy biker, all overcoat, chain belt, and tight jeans. Smeared lipstick and short red hair, possibly dyed. Haunted, hunted eyes. No wonder the kid turned red, she was so skinny he suspected she might be a tranny. Well, no Adam's apple. Whatever her gender, the whore looked like she'd been on short commons for a while. Probably gave the kid a five-buck handjob while he felt her tits.
She clutched a rolled up copy of Encompass in her strong-looking hands.
Good job, kid. Never miss a chance to sell a loose copy.
Well, this whore had turned her last trick. He was half tempted to add the counterman to the bag. What kind of establishment was he running? Macon wondered what his cut was.
"Don't leave just yet," Macon told the kid, hurrying for the door and his bike.
"Th-th-th-that's t-t-t-three for you t-t-t-today, Red," a greasy-haired Indian at the counter managed.
The scarred-up Indian smelled like woodsmoke and swamp water. All the weathering made his age hard to guess, but there were a few flecks of gray in the otherwise shiny black hair.
The stuttering Indian must have had it in for the whore. Maybe he couldn't scrape together even the chump change to afford a throw. He'd all but painted a sign reading SHE'S A WHORE! TAKE HER, NOT ME.
Not quite as lean as the whore, well-muscled about the shoulders, he wore a tattered mix of legworm leather-rare down in Georgia but more common up here-and polyester felt insulated vest. He'd picked up some utility worker's canvas trousers, probably at a resale store. One of those hammer picks hung from a short chain at his belt. The legworm riders used them to peg down their mounts for the night with the hammer end, and the spike end had a slight hook to it, like a mountaineer's climbing pick. They buried that end in the skin of their mounts to pull themselves up. Macon felt a momentary doubt-the stutterer might be a deserter from one of the armies lately rampaging across Kentucky. He put one of the scented candles under his nose, turned, and took a good look at the Indian's boots.
He wore moccasins. Sort of. They looked like they had soles made out of old truck tires, fixed with thick sandal straps.
No self-respecting army would let its soldiers wear boots like that. Even the guerillas had better footgear.
The Indian glanced at Macon with wary brown eyes. "M-maybe f-f-four."
Overplaying a really weak hand, Macon thought. He spoke into his radio, ordered the Transporter to pull up and Casp to cover the door.
"Nobody leaves without my say-so," Macon said, when Casp's bulk filled the front door frame.
The Indian looked scared. Macon wondered if he'd do something stupid with the hammer pick, if push came to shove.
Everyone whispered about the Reapers, the suicides, the Resistance, and the rebels, but most of those bound for harvesting temporized and rationalized until the last few seconds, when death stared them in the face and effective resistance was impossible. Nine-tenths of the Georgia Control were inching toward harvesting, they just wouldn't see it.
Better give them a rationalization.
"I'm here to do a labor draft," he said, slowly and clearly. Some of these border types spoke English as though they'd learned it from a Scrabble scoreboard with a few letters missing. "You're all recruited. Easy work for one day, fifty Control dollars plus a week's ration draw."
"Easy how, boss?" the redhead asked. She had an odd twang to her speech, but she knew how to address Control authority.
Macon smiled. "You have to stand holding a sign with an arrow on it and make sure the arrow always points the way I tell you. We have a convoy heading up into Kentucky, our maps are iffy and signage is gone. There will be military police at the major stops and intersections, but there are still a few turns around downed bridges and whatnot that I need managed."
Macon's first job he'd supervised as a Youth Vanguard had been something very similar, near the Florida border. Only there you had to worry about hungry fauna lunging out of the Okefenokee.
"Finish up your food and have a big drink of Royal Pep on the Control, you probably won't get to eat again until midnight tomorrow morning, if our vehicles are delayed. I'm going to make a pit stop. I want you all ready to go and earn up by the time I'm finished."
He walked up to the redhead and took her by the upper arm. She cocked her head.
"You, darlin'-I've been sleeping in a seat for nine hours. How about helping me work the knots out?"
"I'd rather hold something warmer than a sign, boss," she said. "The bathroom okay? It's all I got."
Macon caught the eye of the Encompass distributor.
"Hey, young man. You look ambitious. Why don't you be foreman and organize some sandwiches to go." They were like sheep. Once you got one moving, the rest would follow.
The whore carefully pinched out her cigarette, held up four fingers to the Indian, and sauntered for the john. He gave her an odd salute in return, as though he were animating a shadow animal on the wall.
"What an asshole," she said. She led him into the washroom, which was cleaner than he'd expected. Apart from a few missing tiles and an overfull waste basket, the place was spotless.
She prattled about how she used to "entertain" in one of the best establishments on the Memphis waterfront and that he reminded her of a better class of men who tipped well.
The jukebox in the diner came on, some song about a long drive ahead before being reunited with absent love. Crap, he really was in the weeds. Well, he'd made his choice.
He wouldn't take any chances. He reached for her, eliciting a moan, and then patted her down, eliciting a what gives, looking for weapons. He found a small knife, a short blade with a nice sheep's-foot handle, with a fork and spoon wrapped up in a damp wash-cloth that smelled like bleach. He dumped them in the overflowing wastebasket.
"Hey, I eat with those," she protested.
"Wash 'em," Macon said. "Take off that chain belt, too. Put it in the trash with the rest."
"Who you know ever got killed with a dog chain?" she said.
Macon patted the trigger guard on his gun with his index finger. "I don't take chances in the sticks."
The whore took off her shirt so slowly you might think she was paid by the hour. Then, rubbing her nipples in absentminded eroticism, she began to talk price.
"If you know what's good for you, you'll give me one just to stay in the good graces," Macon said. He should really be enjoying this more, his chances of getting a woman in the near future weren't great.
"C'mon, boss," she said. "Five bucks. For anything and everything. That's what you tip a doorman in Atlanta."
So began a tiresome argument, her arms crossed on her chest, holding up her small, undernourished breasts. Decent muscle on her shoulders but she could use a few weeks on Georgia ham. Amazing how so many of these people who tried to scratch an existence away from the Kurians wound up thin, sick, and haggard, like wild mutts compared to the sleek German Shepherds of the Control.
Whatever she did, even if she blew him like an eight-hundred dollar private dancer at the Velvet Cloud in Limotown, he'd bag and deliver her. Macon rather liked the idea that the very last skeet dispersing in her body would be his.
After what seemed like endless negotiations, he gave her a dollar. The price of a breath mint. Plus his personal guarantee that she wouldn't have to be out all night holding up a sign.
She unzipped his fly and released his growing erection.
"This'll be the best damn dollar you ever spent," she promised, dropping her knees to the clean white tiles.
Relaxed, sweaty, and tired, he exited the washroom a half hour later, counted heads. The jukebox was still wailing. He shut the door to the sound of the whore fishing in the trash can for her utensils.
A fly buzzed his ear. "Wait a cyc, where did the Indian guy go?"
As if in response, the jukebox went silent.
"I think he left," the kid said.
Macon glared at Casp. He shook his head. "No one's been through this door, boss."
"Left?" Macon looked at the counterman. "Did he go out the kitchen?"
Macon heard plastic flapping. He followed the sound to the music player. Behind a shelving unit filled with stacked boxes of dry supplies a hole in the wall, plastic-covered, flapped. He suspected there'd once been a wall-unit air conditioner, probably long since sold off, the hole then filled with a couple of layers of roofing sheet.
Well, you'd have to expect a few rats to dodge a trap. Maybe Stutters-with-Gimp wasn't as stupid as he looked.
The whore came out of the washroom.
"Anyone who doesn't want to be dead, follow me," Macon said, looking pointedly at her. "You too, Red. Casp, bring up the rear, I don't want any more stragglers."
He strode out the door. The Transporter waited in the lot near the exit. They probably wouldn't be able to see into the windowless back compartment until they were inside. He just needed them to follow him to the back doors. Half of your Authority was in how you presented yourself, walked, talked, confidence bred-
Hands swung down out of the daylight like a mousetrap snapping shut. Before Macon processed that a man-a very strong one-must be up on the Wayside roof, somehow he was in the air, swung aloft by the straps on his Model 18 and his own field harness. He sagged as his gun hitched around some invisible projection, he could just see the shoulder brace of the folding stock ...
A shadow dropped, the steel hammer pick in its hand. The Indian-
He heard Casp grunt.
Three wet strikes. Two quick, one loud and slow-a secret knock struck by a hatchet on a melon-and Casp fell. He looked like a toppled chess piece. The same neat collar, the same well-trimmed hair, facedown in front of a nowhere fill-up, all those hours in the gym punishing a punching bag obviated . . .
"Run for your lives," the Indian yelled to those inside, his stutter gone.
He swung one leg up on the roof, yanked on his gun until the strap came free, then felt himself fall-pulled down.
The ground hit him, hard.
A flurry of legs and he rolled over. Still had the gun. Smelled blood, saw it leaking out of Casp.
Horror in the lot. Red ran out of the driver's compartment on the Transporter. Those fools . . .
The Indian and Red were throwing bundles into the back of his Pooter. His Pooter! They climbed in, pressed the starter.
Macon raised his gun, sighted. He'd blow their brains out and let a sanitation squad clean up the Pooter.
PKEW! the gun rocked sideways in his hand. It had never done anything like that before in his range practice. He lowered it, tried to work the ejector but it wouldn't slide.
No, the Indian had jammed something in the barrel. The gun's mechanism was jammed. Shit-this had never happened to him in the field before, he'd had classroom training.
The Pooter spun around in the parking lot. Macon rolled out of the way, but they weren't heading for him . . . they pulled up alongside the Transporter and the girl slammed a bag into the wheel well.
The bag hissed and smoked.
The Pooter kicked up pebbles as they roared out of the Wayside.
Panting, heart hammering as it had never beat before, Macon dropped the useless gun and rushed to the side of the truck. Expecting to be torn to shreds any second by the blast, he wrenched the charge free. Hurled the bag-odd shape for a demolition charge, and wet, must be some bathtub fertilizer mix in Kur-knows-what container. Had the presence of mind to hit the dirt between himself and the still-airborne explosive.
It landed on the road. He could see it from beneath the Transporter. The bag had split on impact.
The cigarette she'd stuck inside the bag had gone out. The sputtering hiss had been from a bottle of flavored soda that had sprung a leak as she crammed it against the wheel. It was the bag full of sandwiches he'd told the kid to gather.
Angry, angrier than he'd ever been-who were these fuckers!- Macon climbed into the cab and shoved the dead idiots to the side. The radio was smashed. How had that dolt Casp not heard the Transporter crew being killed? Why had the Reapers remained inside? The passenger-side body was grinning at the secret joke of their demise, a Bicycle brand card still in his hand and a vast hole in his throat, as though someone had pried out his windpipe.
He started the engine and pulled out after the Pooter. The rest of the Wayside occupants were fleeing to various compass points.
The Transporter was built like a tank. Nothing short of a cannon could stop it. True Georgia Control craftsmanship, superb in its simplicity. Solid tires behind automatic blinds. Self-sealing fuel tank. Explosive-channeling armored plate.
He drove as though demons had occupied the Pooter and he was an avenging angel. His charges pounded on the wall between the driver's cabin and their compartment. They were probably going crazy from the blood smell.
Still daylight. The Kurians had a hard time keeping connections with their avatars in daylight.
He couldn't wait to turn them loose on this pair. Regular Bonnie and Clyde.
"Shut up back there!" he yelled.
No radio, so the speaker system was voice only.
They didn't shut up back there. The banging increased.
"I'm saving our lives. It's still daylight."
Macon heard rivets pop. What the hell were they doing back there? Metal protested.
"For Kur's sake!" he shouted at the dimpled partition.
At last the banging slackened. Maybe they finally figured out he was doing the driving and the communicator was dead.
The Pooter headed north into wilderness, pushing through brush like a rampaging bull, suddenly lifted its tail. A great fallen tree filled the road, with thick woods to either side. The Pooter might still be able to push through, but only at a pace a jogging man could maintain.
Macon slammed on the brakes as well, hard enough so he heard a thump in back. Well, the Reapers wouldn't mind a few bumps. Especially not after he turned them loose on Bonnie and Clod.
The pair rolled out of the transport. He saw heads bob briefly as they made their way to cover at the front.
Macon felt very alone, now. In his first anger, he'd pursued without thinking about what would happen if he caught up to them. The sweat running down his back had gone cold and his mouth dry.
He rolled down the window, heard nothing but the breeze rustling through leafy spring growth and the popping of hot metal from his engine.
He found himself staring at the back of the transport. It took a moment for him to see what he was already looking at.
Someone had looped a length of no-shit tow-chain around the handles, crisscrossing it several times. Those doors wouldn't open from the inside without being torn off, and some puckering at the hinges on one side showed that the Reapers inside had been trying to do just that.
Yes, the Control really knew how to build them. The air vent to the rear chamber was atop the vehicle, a little mushroomlike projection with a grid to keep out hand grenades. Even an expert shot with a good angle couldn't use the vent to shoot into the rear.
But the grid was stuffed with rags.
Macon swooned for a moment, realizing the implications. He dropped to his hands and knees and looked under the Transporter.
Someone had stuck a siphon hose in the Transporter's exhaust and fed it into the air vent beneath the compartment. With the top corked, the deadly gasses had nothing to do but concentrate.
The implications came-hard and fast. The sweat on his brow made itself felt at the same time-cold and greasy.
Reapers used oxygen like everyone else. Carbon monoxide would build up and kill them. Easier than bullets.
Especially with some fool in the driver's seat redlining the engine.
Just as well he couldn't see the mess inside. Three Reapers, paler than they'd ever been. He could imagine the blue lines in their faces, more distinct than ever. He wondered what those yellow, slit-pupil eyes looked like in death.
Macon understood how it had happened, but would the Green Prince? A new man on the team, a red-ribboned, gift-wrapped, perfumed fuckup like this, and the loss of three qualified lives to a pair of junkyard guerillas.
He'd be lucky to get a job processing corpses for what was left of the Green Prince's Reapers.
For a moment, Macon considered putting the barrel of the gun under his chin and pulling the trigger.
If you want to rise, do the difficult.
It took a long time to grow a new Reaper to useful size and learn to survive on its own during breaks in contact with its master Kurian. Maybe ten years or so, though that was only a guess. No one he knew could say for certain. Only a select few were involved in that process. Maybe he could achieve something that would allow the Green Prince to control Western Kentucky with however many Reapers he had left. Couldn't be more than nine or ten, he'd never heard of a Kurian who had more than a dozen or so.
He cocked the revolver and came around the Transporter, firing as he advanced. He made it to the driver's seat, put the transmission in reverse, and backed away from the Pooter.
The figures rose, watching him. The redhead made an obscene gesture. The Indian stared. Maybe he mouthed something.
John Macon pointed at them, then drew his finger across his throat. Silent promise.
The Indian didn't react.
This isn't over, zealots. If I have to crawl and beg, sleep in the rain, and dine on raw rat, I'll make it my mission in life to figure out who you two are. I'll find your holes or your family or your clan and bring the full forest-burning heat of the Georgia Control down on you like the fist of an angry god. Before this summer's over, I'll have you both skinned and made into an awning, drink Long Islands out of your skulls, and wash my ass with your scalps.