by J. B. Hogan
Part 1 and part 3|
appear in this issue.
|part 2 of 3|
Working his mind back to what the kid had said, Stephen remembered: “Maybe it was a ghostcit from Long Wound,” the boy had cried out in his fear. “Or a sunhiding Eradicator. Oh, God, an Eradicator. Worse than the crazers that put us out here.”
“I’m back there again,” Stephen said out loud. “Back in that place.”
“What did you say?” said the one up front who Stephen assumed was an officer. He turned towards the back seat. Stephen immediately clammed up and held his arms tightly against his body. Let me be invisible, he thought, please.
“I didn’t say anything, sir,” the young man in back replied.
“Huh,” the officer grunted. “Thought someone said something.”
Stephen released a soft breath and said a quick, silent prayer and thank you to whomever kept him from being seen by these Erads.
“Hold up here,” the officer said a few moments later, his tone and manner now definitely indicating he was the highest-ranking man in the vehicle. The officer turned towards the driver and Stephen saw a name tag: Lt. Rankin. “I want to orb these shitcit Long Wound people.”
“Yes, sir,” the driver replied crisply.
“Long Wound people again,” Stephen said to himself, “odder and odder.”
With an abrupt braking, the driver brought the vehicle to a halt on a small ridge. The lieutenant got out and using a pair of small binoculars appeared to scan the area. The other two Erads talked among themselves, Stephen trying to stay as quiet and motionless as possible in case either of them should detect his presence.
“I don’t like being out here without backup,” the young one sitting beside Stephen spoke to the back of the driver’s head. Stephen saw that his name was also Rankin.
“These guys are all related?” Stephen wondered to himself. “That’s peculiar.”
“Don’t sweat it, Bead,” the driver told the younger man, “we’re Erads. We’ll come through. Right now our only concerns are hooking back up with the rest of the pack and keeping track of the Long Wound People.”
“It wasn’t like Crad to disappear like that,” the one called Bead said.
The man in front turned around to speak to the boy and Stephen saw that his name was Rankin as well. Good grief. Apparently these Erads had no regulations about nepotism.
“If you hadn’t checked, son,” the older Rankin said, “we wouldn’t have even known anything was wrong.”
“These People are spookin’ me, dad, uh, sergeant,” Bead said. “They seem to come in and out of the sun like ghosts or something.”
“They’re just men,” Sergeant Rankin said. “No better, no worse. We’re Erads. We will find and defeat them.”
Before the boy Bead could form another question for his father, the other man, Lt. Rankin, popped his head back into the vehicle.
“Here comes Sgt. Cage,” he told the other men. “Hop out.”
At least somebody doesn’t have the same name, Stephen told himself, still hunkering down in his corner of the back seat. There was a loud rumbling as several more of the Erads roared up in other vehicles, including several motorcycle-looking machines. On one of them was a huge, gigantic specimen of a man.
“Sgt. Cage,” Lt. Rankin addressed the new arrival.
“Yes, sir,” Cage bawled back. Stephen felt like he was watching the basic training scene from Full Metal Jacket. These guys were total freaks.
“I want you and Bead here to take romcycles and find out what happened to Crad,” the lieutenant said. “No man left behind.”
“Yes, sir,” Cage roared again. Stephen had to control himself from laughing out loud.
Bead took a romcycle from another soldier, who hopped into another of the four-wheeled vehicles like the one in which Stephen found himself.
“Bust it and check,” Lt. Rankin commanded the two Erads.
“Yes, sir,” Bead saluted.
He and Cage roared off in search of this Crad. Stephen watched them from the back window, dust flying up behind their “romcycles.” In moments they had disappeared around an elevated turn in the road behind. The two older Rankin men climbed back into the vehicle with Stephen, who continued to look in the direction that the romcycles had gone.
“Tom,” Lt. Rankin said, causing Stephen to turn back around in his seat.
The Erad commander paused briefly as if he might have seen something. Stephen froze in the back seat. After a moment the lieutenant went ahead and spoke.
“This could get nasty,” Lt. Rankin said. “I hate that we brought Bead along. But you must be proud of him.”
“Like any father would be,” Tom replied. “But you, too. He’s your nephew. We’re all proud of him.”
“He’s come along quickly,” the lieutenant said. “He was so excited over his first kill.”
“He may get many more today,” Tom Rankin said. “We all may.”
“We may,” Lt. Rankin told his brother, “we may indeed.”
Stephen estimated that Bead and Sgt. Cage were only gone about ten minutes when he heard their romcycles rumbling back up to the main pack of Erads. The elder Rankins spilled out of the vehicle again and walked forward to meet the boy and the huge sergeant. Stephen leaned out of the vehicle carefully to overhear their conversation.
“Report,” Lt. Rankin, barked at the new arrivals.
“We found Crad about a half mile back there,” Bead told his uncle.
“And?” Lt. Rankin asked.
“Dead, sir,” Cage answered.
“Son of a jammer,” Tom Rankin swore.
“Sergeant,” Lt. Rankin said, looking at his brother.
“Sorry, sir,” Tom Rankin replied. The lieutenant turned back to Bead and Cage.
“Details,” he said coldly.
“It was awful,” Bead said. “I almost threw up.”
How very un-Erad-like, Stephen thought, considering the way this bunch seemed to act generally. Still, these latter-day Romans fascinated him, and he continued to watch and listen to them, always careful not to move too quickly or to make any sound.
“Specifics,” Lt. Rankin told the pack, showing no overt reaction to his nephew’s perhaps imprudent comments.
“Crad was on his back,” Sgt. Cage picked up the narrative, “the point of a broken spear sticking out through his stomach. His head was tilted back and his throat had been cut. It was still draining blood. There were flies. Loud. Around his throat. His eyes were open and he was bloating already, and a bad color.”
“Did you follow procedure?” Lt. Rankin asked bluntly.
“We, uh, eliminated the non-functioning unit,” Cage said, his tough voice betraying no emotion.
“Yes, sir,” Bead added distractedly. “We eliminated it.” Young Bead seemed to be taking the other soldier’s death much more personally than the other men. “Damned opcit crazers,” he said, referring, Stephen assumed, to this Crad’s escaped killer or killers.
“I spread the contents of my disposal packets over Crad’s body,” Sgt. Cage went on.
“Lye-150 and HCL Cleaner?” Lt. Rankin asked needlessly.
“Of course, sir,” Cage replied. “Both packs, and the boy’s packs, too.” He pointed at Bead.
“Good,” the lieutenant said. “No man left behind.”
“Frappin’ hell,” Bead interjected. “They’ll pay for this. He was nothin’ but bones and ... and gelatin flesh.”
“Easy, trooper,” Lt. Rankin counseled his nephew.
“Yes, sir,” Bead said, getting himself together emotionally.
“We just missed one of the People that got Crad,” Cage told the two grown Rankin men, “but the fraphead got away.”
“I got off one DC-40 shot,” Bead chimed in. “Missed him.”
“Don’t fret it,” Lt. Rankin told his men, “you’ll have another chance. We’re going after them right now. Sgt. Cage, you and Bead stay on the romcycles. Tom and I will be right by you in the Desert Runner.”
“Excellent,” Cage said, raising his right fist.
“Dust ’em,” Bead cheered.
“Let’s bust,” Tom Rankin said.
Stephen slunk back against the seat behind the driver in the Desert Runner and held his breath. In seconds, the two Rankin men were back in the truck and moments later the vehicle was bouncing and banging across the desert floor. Behind the lead Rankin vehicle came Bead and Cage and several other men in romcycles as well as maybe another dozen or so in more of the four-wheel all-terrain Desert Runner trucks.
Muscles tightening in his neck and shoulders, Stephen realized he was in the middle of a small war. And wars tended to be pretty deadly. At least that’s what he’d read in books and seen on TV.
* * *
Stephen guessed that only about fifteen minutes or so of desert driving had elapsed when Lt. Rankin stopped the pack of Erads just at the top of a sandy overlook in the bumpy road they had followed. The morning sun caused the leader to squint into the bright light. When his eyes had adjusted to the bright sun and he thought all was clear, Lt. Rankin signaled for the pack to move out, but no sooner than his lead vehicle cleared the top of the hill, he brought them to a sharp halt again. Below, at the bottom of the hill, were perhaps a dozen or so men on horseback.
For some moments, the two groups didn’t move. They just looked each other over, staring at one another as if watching a wide, full-screen outdoor movie. Then the men below the Erad pack began to chant, to cry out, to let loose howling war cries. One of them raised a weapon, held it high and yelled at the Erads, apparently challenging them.
“Steady men,” Lt. Rankin yelled to his troops. “They’re just Long Wound warrior cits. The People’s Army. Not heavily armed.”
The Long Wound soldiers, mostly carrying primitive spears and bows and arrows continued their challenging behavior, some of them riding towards the Erads in false charges. Another of them rode out, bearing a more advanced-looking weapon.
“That’s Crad’s DC-40,” Bead cried out. “The bastards.”
Unable to control himself, Bead fired a round from his own DC-40 at the front Long Wound warrior. These DC-40s, Stephen noticed in his terror over the emerging combat, looked like fancy versions of big semi-automatic pistols he’d seen before back home.
With Bead’s shot, the rest of the Erads went for their weapons but the Long Wound warriors fired first, sending a salvo of arrows that fell harmlessly amid the pack. The warrior with the Erad DC-40 cranked off a wild round that knocked up dirt around Lt. Rankin’s vehicle.
A war cry of their own now rose up among the Erad ranks. They shouted at the Long Wound warriors and waved their weapons above their heads. For several minutes, the two groups continued shouting back and forth, challenging and threatening each other.
“Get the frappin’ jammers,” Lt. Rankin finally bawled out above the rattling din. “Charge!” Stephen ducked down into the back seat, cringing, scared to death.
With a mighty roar, the Erad pack stormed down the hill at the Long Wound soldiers, firing as they went. The Long Wound warriors turned their horses and rode hard down the corridor road into the sun, away from the pursuing pack. The Erads pursued them like madmen, firing, yelling, cursing.
Copyright © 2006 by J. B. Hogan