by J. B. Hogan
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
“What?” a third man asked, though it sounded more like a threat or order. This was the man Stephen had first heard speak. He had the deeper, commanding voice. And he was bigger than the others. Taller, heavier, more muscular. “Go all the way back to Endgate,” this big one scoffed, “and ask Feral T’s permission to waste these bloody rebcits? Not likely.”
“Dust ’em,” the skinny berserker said again.
“We’ll stake ’em out here in the fire fields,” the leader told his charges. “Let what gets ’em gets ’em.”
“Hee, hee, hee,” the older, scraggle-toothed one giggled. “Feral T. will like that.”
“Forget F.T.,” the leader growled. The older one shut up immediately. “Bring ’em over here.”
Stephen, barely daring to breath, peeked through the shrubs at the marauders and their captives. One of the two was a grown man, young, with torn clothes, but he had the look of someone used to a much better lifestyle than those of his captors. The other was a boy, maybe nine or ten. Scrawny as possible, dirty faced, his clothes almost worn right off his body. Still, he had a kind of insolent look about him. Stephen liked him right away and felt sorry for the kid.
“On your backs,” the older outlaw said gruffly after he and the skinny one had untied the captives from the back of the buggies. They shoved the young man and boy down onto the sandy ground beyond the vehicles.
“Oh, hell,” the young man moaned as the crazers hammered stakes of wood into the soil. “Frappin’ hell.”
“Shut your hole,” the older marauder told him.
“You gonna stake us out here with the fire bursts?” the kid demanded to know.
“Oh,” he’s a sharp lad,” the leader laughed. The other outlaws heartily joined in the mirth.
From the bushes, Stephen watched as the two captives were staked out about thirty yards or so from his hiding place. Wooden stakes were driven into the sandy soil, the man and boy forced down on their backs, and then tied to the stakes with dirty but strong rope.
“Have a great dark over,” the leader sneered at the boy and man, who wriggled uselessly against their knotted ropes. “Don’t get blazed.” The berserkers laughed loudly again and jumped around the two captives.
“Let me dust one of ’em,” the skinny crazer begged his leader.
“Shut it,” the leader snarled.
“Shite,” the skinny one said unhappily.
“Saddle up,” the leader told the group. “Let’s get.”
As the outlaws revved their vehicles and began to move off, Stephen shifted to his right to get a better view. The skinny outlaw seemed to catch the movement out of the corner of his eye.
“Frappin’ hell,” the skinny one cried, pulling his sidearm. He swung it quickly towards the bushes where Stephen hid and fired wildly. The rounds bit through the scrub branches and dug up the sand by Stephen. He cried and ducked down.
“What the frap are you doin’?” the leader screamed at the skinny outlaw.
“I thought... I thought I saw somethin’ move over there,” the scrawny one said.
The marauders stared at the bushes in question. Stephen held his breath, worrying that they would see him, wondering if he had been hit by the barrage of bullets. He had not. The outlaws did not seem able to see him.
“Crazy butt,” the leader growled at the skinny outlaw. “There’s nothin’ there.”
“I thought...” Skinny began.
“Move,” the leader said. “Zoom.”
Yelling and revving their motors, the berserkers tore off across the desert. Away from Stephen, away from the staked out captives. Stephen kept his head down until the sound of their engines completely faded into the air and all was still again. Then he waited ten minutes more. Finally, he stirred, checked his body for the wounds he couldn’t imagine he would not have, was surprised to find none.
He got to his knees, then stood, always keeping an eye on the horizon, fearful of the return of the berserkers. At last he got up the courage to come out from behind the scrub bushes. Slowly, he walked in a long semi-circle towards the staked out captives. Like the outlaws before, these two seemed to have no idea he was there either.
Stripped to the waist and staked face up, they had been left to the mercy of the elements — or worse — by the marauders. The pair’s initial terror slowly subsided and they began to consider ways out of their predicament — before the land around them began to spout erratic fire plumes, as it had suddenly begun to do.
At first there were just little puffs of smoke out of the ground, then small sparks, followed by thin flames, and with more time passed, eruptions of fire that shot up a foot or more. The two captives squirmed and twisted as some of the little smoke puffs rose very near to them.
Stephen continued his long approach towards the two staked out captives, an approach made all the slower now by the appearance of the fire spouts. For the better part of the next quarter hour, Stephen closed in on the captives, carefully watching for outbreaks of the strange ground fires, listening to the conversation between the two and to their attempts at escape.
They passed much of that time driving each other into a paranoid frenzy by focusing on the chances of their immediate, painful demise. They imagined wild animals ripping their flesh off, the marauders returning to stab and shoot them, to burn and cook them — and serve them up as an entree for the aforementioned Feral T. And they fretted about their survival under the blazing desert sun.
“Ari,” Stephen heard the boy, voice cracking over cracked lips, say clearly, “Ari?”
“What?” the young man called Ari croaked back.
“I’m thirsty,” the boy whined, “max thirsty.”
“Don’t talk about it, Jamel,” Ari said, twisting vainly against the stakes. The outlaws had tied them with thick, hemp cords that would take at least a sharp knife to cut.
“What are we going to do?” the boy Jamel asked pitifully. “We’re going to dust out here.”
“We’ll be okay,” Ari consoled the boy, “save your strength. We’ll get out of this somehow. They didn’t X us out when they had their chance. That was their mistake.”
“Did you see something over by the bushes,” Jamel wondered, “when the crazers started shooting?”
“If there was some citizen there, they’d have dusted ’im,” Ari said.
“Maybe it was a ghost cit from Long Wound,” Jamel shuddered. “Or a sunhiding Erad. Oh, God,” he fantasized, terrorizing himself, “an Eradicator. Worse than the crazers.”
“Easy,” Ari told the boy. “Calm down.”
Jamel was quiet for several minutes then, only the ropes squeaking against the wooden stakes and the swishing of the sand blowing across the ground making any sound. Stephen watched the one called Ari rearrange his body from time to time as certain parts of the ground would suddenly get very warm for a moment or two.
“Ari,” Jamel said after awhile.
“There’s somebody out here with us.”
“Hush,” Ari said, “you’re...”
Ari’s sentence trailed off as a shadow seemed to cross over him and the boy. He could swear he heard light footsteps in the sand behind them. He leaned his head back as far as he could to see who was there. A figure seemed to dart back, away. Ari lay flat again to rest his neck. Jamel was rigidly still, expecting to be dusted any minute. The shadow whisked by again. Jamel yelled. But not about the shadow. A small fire had erupted by his leg, flames briefly biting at his calf before going out.
“Frap,” Jamel squealed. “A blasted field of fire. Yow!” Another flame spurted up and out by his face.
“Help us,” Ari called out to whomever was behind them. He had to take the risk. The field of fire would get progressively worse as the sun rose, eventually cooking him and the boy. “Help us get loose.” Two more small flames lit up on either side of Ari.
“Help,” Jamel cried. “Help.”
The shadow appeared over their heads again and both men reared back on their necks to see who it was.
“Who is it?” Ari asked. “Help us. Cut us loose.”
“I can’t see anybody,” Jamel cried in terror. “Is it crazers?”
“Cut us loose, please,” Ari half demanded, half pleaded, of the shadow that flitted around them. There was no response.
“Hear me, cit,” Ari went on to whomever or whatever might be back there behind him and Jamel. “Crazers took us captive and left us here to burn up in this fire field. We need your help to get free. Please cut us loose.”
There was a long silence. Behind the two captives, Stephen was in a near state of shock. Where am I, he thought, who are these strange people? Can they actually see me? Am I really here? He considered the situation. If it was real, could he help these two escape. If he did would they be worse than the marauders who had staked them out.
That didn’t seem so likely. One was just a young guy, close to Stephen’s own age. The other only a boy. But how was this happening? Where had he gone? His thoughts shot back to the caving incident he’d had some months before when he seemed to have observed and been a part of another time and place. Was he going crazy? Was he having sun stroke?
“Please,” the one called Ari spoke again. “Whoever you are. Cut us loose. Set us free. I’m a rebcit. Trying to find a rebel camp. We’re good cits at heart. Both of us. Let us go.”
Stephen reached in his backpack, found Uncle Melvin’s Buck knife. He would try to cut these poor captives loose, he would leave them the canteen, he would... Suddenly Stephen broke off his interior monologue. There was that sound again. The sound of the berserker sand buggies.
Instinctively, Stephen started to back away on his hands and knees. The sound was getting louder. It wasn’t as loud as when they had first appeared but it was getting nearer. Then the source of the noise popped up over a ridge maybe a quarter mile away. It was only one of them. Somebody was coming back for the captives.
“If there’s somebody there,” the captive named Ari pleaded again, “cut us loose. At least let the boy go. He’s just a smalltad.”
“I’m a big tad,” Jamel insisted, despite his predicament. “I been to Endgate. I’ve been to the Outworld.”
“Just let us go,” Ari repeated, “cut the ropes.”
Ari struggled hard against the ropes, knew time was running out. The berserker drew nearer and nearer. In what seemed like a heartbeat he was there, beside the captives, his vehicle rumbling. It was the skinny one. He looked down at the boy.
“Nice,” he snarled. “Maybe I dust you first.”
“Don’t you need Feral T’s say so first,” Jamel smarted off.
“You little shitcit,” the skinny one responded, pointing his semi-automatic pistol at the kid. “I oughta dust you insto.” Jamel shut up.
“Leave him alone,” Ari said, struggling with his ropes. If only he could get loose, he told himself, then I could do something.
And suddenly the strange shadow flitted over him again and he felt his right hand freed from the binding hemp, then the left. It seemed like someone, or something, whispered in his ear. Then, amazingly, Ari could feel a metal object under the back of his left hand. It was a knife, a big one. He surreptitiously slid it into position in his left hand.
“You first then,” the skinny marauder called over to Ari, gunning his vehicle around past Jamel and coming up alongside Ari.
He leaned down and aimed his pistol at Ari’s chest. At that moment the shadow crossed over both Ari and the berserker. The berserker let out a yell and pulled back. Seeing his opening, Ari rose up and lunged forward, driving the knife so miraculously found at his side deep into the body of the outlaw. The berserker cried out and fired his weapon into the sky.
“Dust ’im, Ari, dust ’im,” Jamel screamed over and over, “dust ’im.”
Ari pulled the knife out of the berserker, drove it home again, hard, straight into the marauder’s heart. With a bloody last rattling breath, the skinny outlaw fell backwards, hit the shifter and gas on his vehicle causing it to lurch forward, roar wildly across the desert.
Behind the scene, Stephen watched in horror, fascination, and confusion as the dead man and his vehicle made an out of control loop and then roared straight towards him. There was no time to avoid the buggy. It was coming right at him. Stephen ducked and held his hands over his face. The last thing he heard was the sound of the buggy and Jamel’s voice yelling:
“Ari, look, look, do you see ’im?”
* * *
Stephen awoke flat on his back on the desert floor. His head ached with a sharp pain above both eyes and the sun’s intense heat beat down on his face. He moaned and slowly sat up, rubbing his forehead. Squinting into the bright light of the day, he could see he was just outside the shade of a mesquite tree. Dragging himself over to the tree, he breathed deeply several times and tried to get his bearings. Remembering where he had been last, he spun around to see where everyone was.
“Ouch,” he groaned, grabbing the back of his neck.
But there was no one there. Only the quiet desert that he had been exploring, what, maybe a half-hour or forty-five minutes ago. He tried to judge the passage of time by the movement of the sun, but it was too bright, hurt his eyes too much to try that. Stephen longed to be back home, in the quiet of his familiar Missouri woods, with their green trees, cool shade, and refreshing rivers.
He felt thirsty, reached for his canteen, but it was gone. Oh, lord, he thought, it couldn’t be. He dug in the pack for Uncle Melvin’s Buck knife. It was gone, too. Geez, he chastised himself inwardly, I’ve lost both of them. Crap, I’ll have to go to Green Valley and buy new ones. How could I lose them both.
As his head began to clear, he tried to make sense of his recent experience. Must’ve fallen asleep under this tree, he told himself, had a bad dream. Too much heat, maybe it was that heat stroke stuff. No way it was real. It just couldn’t be. Not another one of these experiences, like back at the cave above the Marais des Cygnes river back home. There he’d seen marauding, civil war outlaws; now, here in the empty Arizona desert there had been strange, futuristic-like characters. What was happening to him? Was he going crazy?
Slowly he gathered up his gear, checked that he still had the cool geodes that he had found — sighed with relief when he found them safely at the bottom of his backpack — and finally stood up. He looked around again. Looked for signs of anyone on a vehicle or indications that anyone had been tied up out there on the desert ground. There was nothing. He sighed deeply. The pretty mountain range was back where it was supposed to be. Things seemed normal enough again.
Walking back in the direction of Uncle Melvin’s Hyundai, Stephen told himself he would be glad to get out of this desert and back home to Missouri. It was too hot out here, it caused the mind to play tricks on a fellow. Yeah, he would be glad to be home again.
Maybe one of these days he’d even get up the gumption to move out of his parents’ house and find a place of his own. Maybe then Lisa would take him more seriously. Maybe if he had a cool apartment with some cool furniture and a big, flat screen TV and stuff like that she would think he was worthy of her attention. Yeah, he made fun of his own ideas: and maybe pigs will fly, too.
But on his drive back to Uncle Melvin and Aunt Vivian’s he kept coming back to his hopes. Maybe it could work out with Lisa someday. Maybe if he did have his own place and all that other stuff, then he might be able to muster up the guts to simply ask her out for dinner sometime; that is, if he ever did get out on his own. Maybe she would say yes to a man who was independent and self-sufficient. Maybe she would go out with him then. Maybe.
Copyright © 2006 by J. B. Hogan