/ Language: English / Genre:sf_postapocalyptic

The Seeds of Man

W Dietz

The Seeds of Man is a full-length never before released science fiction novel.

With The Seeds of Man New York Times bestselling science fiction author William C. Dietz offers us a post apocalyptic future where bullets can be used to purchase anything, and only the strongest will survive.

Millions were killed during a brief nuclear war. But now, fifty years later, the world is locked in the cold embrace of a nuclear winter and food is scarce. Billions of people are dead of starvation and the survivors are battling each other for what remains.

Lora Larsy is one of the more fortunate people because she was raised in a doomsday seed vault called the Sanctuary. It was constructed to ensure that the survivors of a nuclear war, widespread famine, or pandemic would have the seeds required for a fresh start. But most of those who live in the Sanctuary are afraid to venture outside because of the barbarians, religious fanatics, and feudal lords who rule the wastelands.

But Lora’s father and a small group of rebels are determined to leave the Sanctuary and take a supply of seeds with them. Lora decides to go along. Thus begins a long dangerous trek that test Lora in every possible way, take her into terrible danger, and will eventually place the Sanctuary’s fate in her hands.

Meanwhile Tre Ocho ekes out a living by scavenging for food, tech, and books in the ruins of devastated cities. When he falls in with a group bandits led by a charismatic man called Crow, Tre finds something more than a means to survive, he finds a purpose. A path to a better future. If he can stay alive long enough to do so.

A young man, a young woman, with everything at stake… The Seeds of Man.


THE SEEDS OF MAN

by William C. Dietz

My best friend, George Rigg, knew I liked science fiction and gave me a book about a post apocalyptic America for my twelfth birthday. The concept made a lasting impression.

He died of cystic fibrosis when he was twenty-two. I still miss him.

George, this one is for you.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Brett Beaulieu for sharing his in-depth knowledge of garbage dumps with me. And yes, I’m serious.

And many thanks to Karin Bumbaco for all the sage advice and information related to climate change. It’s already under way, but let’s hope we can slow it down.

Chapter One

Near Fort Vermillion, Alberta, Canada

Lora Larsy awoke as she always did to the gentle buzz of the alarm clock located next to her bed. She hated that sound and what it meant, which was the beginning of another school day. According to books she’d read, there had once been a time when it was possible to switch schools or even drop out. But that was before the nuclear war, before billions of people were killed, and before the keepers sealed the Sanctuary off from the rest of the world. Now school was mandatory, and if she failed to show up, her absence would result in penalties for her father. A touch of a button silenced the alarm.

Lora listened but couldn’t hear any sounds coming from her father’s room. That wasn’t a surprise. Her father had been out late.

Lora’s bedroom was barely large enough to accommodate a fold-down bunk, a built-in wardrobe, and a tiny desk. A night-light provided some illumination as Lora got up and crossed the hall into the bathroom.

Once inside she locked the door and eyed herself in the mirror. The inventory was a daily ritual. She had shoulder-length brown hair, a high forehead, mostly hidden by bangs, and brown eyes. Not blue like Kristy’s, or green like Becky’s, just brown.

Lora thought her nose was her best feature, which was probably true since no one teased her about it. But it wasn’t enough to make up for lips that were too thin, ears that stuck out, and breasts that were too small. She uttered a sigh and began to brush her teeth. Then it was time to enter the shower stall and turn the water on. Three minutes. That’s how long she had to work with. Some people preferred to soap, scrub, and rinse. Lora gave herself one minute to do all three. Then she could stand there and let the hot water pummel her skin for a full two minutes before the shower turned itself off. Then it would be ten minutes before someone could use it again, one of many measures intended to conserve water.

After exiting the shower, it was time to dry off, return to her room, and get dressed. The uniform consisted of a white blouse with a navy blue skirt and matching socks. A pair of plain black shoes completed the outfit. The council claimed that forcing all the children to wear the same clothing would prevent social stratification. But that was hypocritical since the same council assigned heretics like her father to tiny apartments at the bottom of the stack as a way to signify their inferior status. And she had said as much. Her father’s response was a gentle smile. “They mean well, Lora. They mean well.” But they didn’t mean well. Not in Lora’s opinion. And the fact that her father was so reasonable about it made her angry.

Breakfast consisted of cereal made from wheat, oats, and other ingredients grown inside the hab. And there was milk too, from the Sanctuary’s dairy cows, all of which was a miracle in a world where the rest of humanity fought over food. So rather than feel grateful, Lora felt guilty.

After breakfast she washed her bowl, put it on a rack to dry, and grabbed the backpack that was resting next to the worn couch. Then, careful to close the door quietly, Lora stepped outside. The center of the habitat’s core was empty except for the central column and the elevators clustered around it. The purpose of the space was to convey light down from above as well as promote air circulation and provide a sense of openness.

So as Lora tilted her head back, she could see people on the ramps that spiraled upward. Like every student, she knew that the Sanctuary housed roughly twenty-five hundred people, all descendants of the scientists and technicians stationed in the habitat when the war started.

But rather than follow the walkway around to the point where she could climb a ramp, Lora chose to cross a sky bridge to the central column instead. After a short wait on the open-air platform, Lora entered Elevator 4 and was pleased to discover that none of her father’s nutty friends were aboard. The lift rose smoothly and paused on Level 5, one of the highest rez rings. Would Becky or Kristy get on? Lora gave thanks when neither of them did.

The elevator stopped on eight, where Lora got off. A graceful bridge led her over the chasm below to one of the ag rings. That particular level was being used to grow garden vegetables. Lora, who had an interest in such things, took note of the coolness in the air. The misters had been on recently, and she could smell the moist soil.

It was so early that none of the ag workers had reported for duty yet, but that didn’t mean the area was deserted. Lora followed a maintenance path back to a storage shed and the jumble of tools, boxes, and tubing piled around it. And there, in keeping with long-standing practice, she uttered a low whistle.

The answering whistle came quickly. Lora circled around behind the piles of equipment to the point where Matt was seated on an upside-down planter. He had a mop of unruly hair, cheeks that were decorated with angry-looking zits, and a neck that was the source of his nickname: the giraffe. Matt wasn’t her boyfriend, but he was the only boy she had ever kissed, and the only one who said she was pretty. He winked at her and took a long drag from a hand-rolled cigarette. Lora wrinkled her nose as he exhaled. “Smoking is bad for you, and so is Cannabis sativa.”

Matt grinned. “You should try some, Lora. It would make you feel better.”

“I doubt that very much,” Lora said primly as she eyed the area around her. “Where are you growing it? Your family will be in trouble if the protectors find it.”

“They won’t,” Matt predicted confidently as he took another drag. “So how’s your father?”

Lora frowned. “Fine. Why?”

“My dad says your dad made a fool of himself last night. He told the council that the time has come to open the vaults and distribute seeds to people who need them. And when they told him to sit down, he started yelling. The protectors had to escort him out.”

Lora winced. She’d heard the argument a thousand times and read the charter her father liked to quote from. But the habitat had been sealed off for nearly two generations, and with the exception of a small group of leavers like her father, the rest of the population was happy with the way things were. It was easy to understand why. The nuclear war between India, Pakistan, and China had killed billions of people in a matter of days and millions more during the nuclear winter that followed. With all the particulates thrown up into the atmosphere by the explosions, there was less sunlight. That made it more difficult to grow food, and people starved.

So the keepers, meaning those who wanted to keep things the way they were, insisted that that conditions weren’t right for distributing seeds. After all, they argued, most of the people outside the Sanctuary were barbarians, so why give seeds to them? Besides, it was too cold to grow crops, even if the leavers found the right people to give seeds to.

But was that true? Or were the arguments the keepers put forward simply an excuse to do nothing while the citizens of the Sanctuary continued to live in comparative luxury? That’s what George Larsy believed, and his daughter was torn between the differing views. Regardless of who was right, she knew one thing for sure—her father’s intransigence was making her life miserable. But she wasn’t about to say that to Matt. “The council disapproves of smoking too. I guess you and my dad are two of a kind.”

Matt laughed as he stubbed the joint out on the side of a pot. Then he rolled the cigarette butt back and forth between his fingers until it fell apart. Lora looked at her watch. “Damn! We’re late again.”

Lora went one way and Matt went the other. It was important to arrive separately, or their classmates would claim they were a couple—not because they really believed that was the case but to give them grief. And Lora had plenty of that already.

All the schools were located on Level 14. And even though Lora ran from the elevator to the circular walkway, and from there to the high school’s front door, she was still three minutes late. Headmaster Wilkes, or the Head, as the students referred to him, was six-two and mostly bald. He stood in her way. “Late again, Miss Larsy. What is this? The third time in the last month? Perhaps you should get up earlier.”

Lora lowered her eyes. “Sorry, Mr. Wilkes.”

Wilkes smiled. “No excuses. I like that. Run along now… and get here on time tomorrow.”

Lora was thrilled to get off with nothing more than a lecture and scurried down the hall to her first class. The subject was math, the one she hated most. But there was no escape.

The door swished open, she stepped into the brightly lit classroom, and everyone turned to look, including Mrs. Norman. She was a little thing with close-set eyes, a pixie cut, and the precise movements of a bird. “Better late than never,” she observed tartly, “or am I wrong?”

That got a laugh out of the class, and Lora felt her face turn bright red as she made her way to a seat in the back of the room. Kristy and Becky were there, of course, and even though Lora couldn’t see them, she could feel the stares.

A boy named Cory had the seat next to Lora, and he was so far down the social food chain that he looked up to her. “Your hair looks nice today,” he said, apparently oblivious to what had taken place.

“Shut up and mind your own business,” Lora replied, then felt a terrible sense of shame when she saw the crestfallen look on his moonlike face. Had he been waiting to say that? Had he rehearsed it? Yes, she sensed he had. Lora wanted to say she was sorry, but Mrs. Norman was writing an incomprehensible formula on the whiteboard by then, and it was too late.

Algebra had been easy at first. Letters could represent variables or constants. Lora got that. But then, within a week or so, she began to fall behind. Suddenly Mrs. Norman was speaking what sounded like a foreign language that everyone but Lora understood.

Lora tried to disappear. The trick was to sit perfectly still, because even the slightest movement could attract Mrs. Norman’s steely gaze, and when that happened the math teacher would rap out a question. Sometimes Cory would come to the rescue with a whispered answer, but more often than not, Lora came up empty.

That was always good for some titters from Becky and Kristy, who sat in the front row and would turn to look at her. It didn’t make sense. They were stupid and they understood algebra.

Fortunately, on that particular day, Mrs. Norman was presenting new gobbledygook, so Lora wasn’t required to go up to the whiteboard and prove how inadequate she was. The hour hand crawled around the clock and eventually came to rest on the twelve. A buzzer sounded, students stampeded out of the room, and Lora followed.

Kristy and Becky were waiting outside. Kristy was blond, with high cheekbones and a pouty mouth. Becky was a brunette with a heart-shaped face and an upturned nose. Both wore identical ponytails, skirts that hit just above the knee, and custom-made shoes that looked like slippers, violations of the dress code that the Head never seemed to notice. “So, leaver,” Kristy began. “What were you and the giraffe doing on Level Eight this morning?”

“I’ll bet she kissed him,” Becky put in. “Zits and all.”

Suddenly weeks of pent-up anger boiled up inside Lora and she reacted. Her balled fist made contact with Becky’s upturned nose, something gave, and blood spilled down the front of her white blouse. Kristy screamed as Becky sampled the red stuff with a finger, looked at it, and began to cry. Then both girls took off for the lavatory. Cory had witnessed the entire thing and watched them go. “That was awesome.”

Lora shook her head. “No, it wasn’t. It was stupid.” She turned to look at him. “And Cory…”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry about what I said earlier. I didn’t mean it.” With that she walked away.

There was no point in going to her next class only to be removed from it—with all the embarrassment that would entail. So Lora walked down a long hallway, entered the office, and sat on one of the three chairs generally reserved for troublemakers. The secretary turned to look at her. Mrs. Olson was nice, the way Lora imagined her mother might have been if she had survived childbirth. “In trouble again?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Who sent you?”

“I sent myself.”

Mrs. Olson laughed. “I like your style. Mr. Wilkes will be back soon.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

A full five minutes passed before the Head came through the door, started to say something, and stopped when he saw Lora. “She came in on her own,” Olson said pointedly.

Wilkes looked Lora in the eye. His expression was serious. “You broke her nose and her parents will be furious. Striking another student is completely unacceptable. I will talk to your father. Then we’ll see what sort of punishment to impose.”

Lora looked down. “Yes, sir.”

Wilkes glanced at his watch. “Okay, it’s too late to make your second class, so go to lunch. And, Lora…”

Lora’s head came back up. “Sir?”

“Please stay out of trouble for the rest of the day.”

“Yes, sir.”

So Lora was the first student to enter the cafeteria and the first person to take her place at the so-called loser’s table, where all the outcasts gathered. Matt arrived shortly thereafter and sat across from her. “I hear you fed Becky a knuckle sandwich. Well done.”

“Mr. Wilkes is going to tell my father,” Lora said bleakly. “And he’ll be mad at me.”

“You’ll survive,” Matt predicted. “Just say you’re sorry and look pitiful.”

As it happened, that was exactly what Lora planned to do. She changed the subject. “Somebody spotted us on Level Eight. Kristy knew about it.”

Matt frowned. “What did she say?”

“She thought we were making out.”

“Works for me.”

“Well, it doesn’t work for me,” Lora said primly.

Matt never got to reply because a girl named Anne joined them and the conversation turned back to the fight. As the room began to fill, Lora could feel the stares and knew people were talking about her. That made her uncomfortable, plus there was the possibility that Kristy and Becky would arrive at any moment, so she hurried to finish her meal. Then, having returned her tray, she was out the door and off to her favorite class. Agro 105 was all about the technical side of growing food indoors—and the students were learning by doing. That meant rebuilding the irrigation system for Plot 3 on Level 7.

Lora made her way to the girls’ locker room, where she took a quick look around. Fortunately Becky and Kristy were nowhere to be seen, so she changed into a blue T-shirt and khaki shorts prior to heading down to Section 4 of Level 7.

That part of Level 7 was dedicated to the Sanctuary’s central purpose, which, as Lora’s father liked to point out, wasn’t to keep a couple of thousand people fed while the rest of humanity starved. No, the seed bank’s true mission was to provide a backup should a war or natural catastrophe result in the destruction of one or more species of plants. Had that taken place? There was no way to know without sending a team of scientists out to assess the situation. And the keepers wouldn’t permit that. They pointed out that once the barbarians knew where the Sanctuary was, they would attack it. And George Larsy hadn’t been able to counter that argument. Not to Lora’s satisfaction anyway.

But according to her father, the overriding concern was to supply the starving populace with cold-tolerant seeds, regardless of the dangers. To hear him tell it, the Sanctuary should transform itself into what amounted to a factory—and distribute seeds far and wide. And to hell with the consequences.

As Lora arrived in Section 4, her thoughts turned to the task at hand. Having removed the soil from the planter boxes, the students were installing a new irrigation system to replace one that was twenty years old. Since Lora liked to work with her hands, she delighted in laying tubing, hooking it up to the misters, and testing each run to make sure that it was working properly.

So she was already engrossed in her work by the time class started. Mr. Teal was there to offer advice when required but was willing to let his students make mistakes as part of the learning process. And he was willing to tolerate some horseplay as well, which typically resulted in one or more people getting wet.

The class was over before Lora knew it. She was down on her knees working on a water manifold when Mr. Teal appeared beside her. “We made good progress today… It’s time to wrap it up.”

“Okay, Mr. T. All I need is another ten minutes. I’ll put the tools away.”

“Good. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Lora heard the crunch of gravel as the instructor walked away—and was busy tightening a hose clamp when she heard the same sound again. Five minutes had passed by then, but she was expecting to see Mr. T as she turned to look. Only it wasn’t Mr. T. Becky’s brother Luke was big, strong, and nineteen years old.

The kick was already on the way and, if Lora hadn’t been in motion by then, would have connected with her head. As it was, Luke’s boot grazed her temple. She fell sideways and tried to roll away. But Luke followed, kicking where he could and connecting with various parts of her anatomy. Her right shoulder, arm, and ribs all took hits.

The pain was intense, and all Lora could do was roll up into a ball and wrap her arms around her head. A blow hit one of her thighs, and Lora figured that Luke was going to beat her to death; then he stopped. She couldn’t see, but the voice was clear enough. “That’s for Becky… Don’t go near her again.”

There was a crunching sound as Luke walked away. Lora hadn’t cried until then, but suddenly tears came. A deep sob rocked her body, but it made her injuries hurt even more, so she stopped. That was when Lora moved—or tried to. But the pain was so intense that she couldn’t get up. So she lay there, staring at the level above, careful not to move. At some point she fell asleep, something that became apparent when she awoke to her father’s voice. “Oh, Lora,” George Larsy said sadly as he knelt next to her. “What have they done to you?“

Lora felt a profound sense of gratitude as her father scooped her up and carried her to the elevators. The hospital was on Level 18, and she heard her father tell someone, “Please let me by,” as they crossed a narrow sky bridge. Then there were lights, doctors, and tests. “Nothing is broken,” she heard someone say. “Give her one of these every four hours and let her rest. She’ll be sore for the next few days.”

“Okay, let’s see if you can stand,” a female voice said. Lora sat up, winced, and swung her feet off the examining table. Her father was there to help her down. The doctor had a kindly face and wore a stethoscope around her neck. “Call me if she feels dizzy or nauseous.”

George promised that he would and assisted his daughter out through a sliding door. It was dark by that time. A Toshiba microreactor supplied almost all the Sanctuary’s power; the habitat’s citizens could have kept the lights on twenty-four hours a day had they desired to.

But most people preferred the traditional diurnal cycle—so the lights began to fade around six o’clock. And now it was at least two hours later than that. As George and Lora crossed a sky bridge, the transparent elevator tubes glowed in front of them. They entered a capsule and rode it down. The car came to a smooth stop, and Lora was grateful for the relative darkness as her father escorted her home. If there was anything worse than getting beaten up, it was being stared at. It felt good to enter their tiny apartment and collapse on the couch.

That was when Lora saw the items laid out on the floor. She looked at her father. He had a shock of gray hair, a long face, and sallow skin. “What is this stuff?”

“Things we’re going to need,” George replied vaguely. “We’ll get into that—but first I want to know what happened today. And don’t leave anything out. The hospital has notified the protectors by now, and they will want to speak with you.”

So Lora told him, starting with Matt, followed by the run-in with Becky and Luke’s sudden appearance. As she told the story, her father’s face began to darken and she could see the anger in his eyes. “The bastard! I would press assault charges if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re leaving.”

Lora sat up. “We’re what?”

“I was going to tell you when you came home from school,” George explained as he took a seat in his favorite chair. “And when you failed to arrive, I went looking. Anyway, there was a council meeting last night, and I was there.”

“They threw you out. Matt told me.”

George winced. “Yes. My friends and I made a last-ditch attempt to convince the council that it should carry out the mission the Canadian government had in mind back when the seed bank was constructed.”

“Right,” Lora said sarcastically. “And how did that go?”

“You know the answer. They said no. That’s why we’re leaving. We’re going to take some seeds and deliver them to the right people. Then we’re going to teach them how to propagate more seeds. And eventually it will make a difference.”

Lora was shocked, dismayed, and frightened. “You’re serious? The leavers are going to leave?”

“Yes,” George said, “that’s the plan.”

“But it’s illegal. The only people who are allowed to go outside are the protectors and maintenance crews.”

“We’re going anyway,” George said steadfastly. “We’ve been working on it for months, making the gear we’ll need, and gathering information. Now we’re ready. We’ll be gone by this time tomorrow night. Can you imagine? Outside!

Lora was momentarily mute in the face of her father’s boyish enthusiasm. Then she found her voice. “What about me? What if I don’t want to leave?”

“I continue to struggle with that,” George admitted. “At sixteen you aren’t a child anymore. But you aren’t an adult either, and I’m selfish—I can’t bear the thought of leaving you behind. Besides,” he said hopefully, “look at what happened today. Do you really want to stay?”

Lora had to admit that the thought of being able to leave Kristy, Becky, and algebra behind had a lot of appeal, as did the prospect of experiencing the outside world. But unlike her father, she was a pragmatist, and that meant she could see some problems looming ahead. Big problems. “What will we eat?” she wanted to know.

“We’ve been stockpiling food for some time,” George replied. “Enough to last for three months. Longer if we can supplement our rations with wild game.”

“And the barbarians?” Lora asked. “What about them?”

“We’ll try to avoid contact with the wrong sort of people,” George said. “But if it comes to that, we’ll be ready to defend ourselves.”

Lora knew next to nothing about weapons and fighting, and her father didn’t either. But she could tell that his mind was made up. “So you’ll force me to go?”

George shook his head. “No, Lora… I won’t make you go. Stay if you must. But I hope you’ll come.”

Lora didn’t want to leave the Sanctuary for the same reasons other people didn’t, but the prospect of parting company with her father was more than she could bear. “All right,” she said reluctantly, “I’m in.”

George’s face lit up. “Really? That’s wonderful! Now, remember… What we’re going to do is a closely held secret, so don’t tell anyone. And work on getting well. I would delay the departure date if I could, but the longer we wait, the more likely a leak becomes, and we’ll only get one opportunity. If we blow that, it’s over for good.

“Now, take it easy,” George added. “I’ll move this stuff to my bedroom. The protectors could drop by at any moment.”

“What should I tell them?”

“Tell them the truth minus the meeting with Matt. It has nothing to do with the beating and there’s no reason to get him in trouble.”

“Should I go to school in the morning?”

George grinned. “No, you have the perfect excuse not to. I’ll call Wilkes and tell him that you’re in a lot of pain.”

Two protectors arrived shortly after that. George let them in and listened while they asked all the obvious questions. Did she recognize her attacker? Did he use a weapon? And so forth. Lora answered honestly and they left.

After a light dinner, Lora went to bed, but she couldn’t sleep. Not with the day’s events running through her mind—and fears about the future to confront. But after an hour of lying there, she was able to drift off. A jumble of troubled dreams was waiting for her.

Lora was in pain when she awoke. Everything hurt. So she hobbled into the bathroom, swallowed a pain pill, and began to take inventory. There was a scratch on one cheek, her upper lip was swollen, and an angry-looking bruise appeared as she removed her tee. She touched it, winced, and turned to the shower. Having kicked her panties off, Lora stepped in under the pulsating spray. It hurt like hell. She made the necessary adjustment and uttered a sigh of relief. She knew that soaping herself would be painful, so she let that step go and just stood there, water running down her body, wondering if that was the last hot shower she would ever have.

After toweling off and getting dressed, Lora listened to see if her father was up and around. He wasn’t, and that was just as well, because there was something she wanted to do—no, had to do. Something he wouldn’t approve of.

School was going to start in an hour, so when she sent the text message to Matt, she was pretty sure that he would respond; the reply came seconds later. Lora put her comset in her pocket, slipped out of the apartment, and made her way to the central elevators. Each step was painful and made all the more so by her attempts to walk normally. There wasn’t any way to conceal the fat lip, but the last thing she wanted to do was attract attention by limping across the sky bridge.

However, most of the people she encountered were on their way to work and not inclined to pay much attention to those around them. Still, when Lora got off on Level 7, she took a quick look around to make sure that she wasn’t under observation. As far as she could tell, no one was paying attention to her.

So she crossed a sky bridge to the east side and followed the circular walkway to the spot where she and the rest of the students in Agro 105 were installing the new irrigation system and where Luke had attacked her. There was one last hose to attach to the manifold, and she was determined to finish the job before leaving the Sanctuary.

After removing a screwdriver from a plastic toolbox, she went over to the spot where she’d had been working the day before and lowered herself to the ground. Various parts of her body still hurt, but not as badly as before. Maybe a little bit of exercise would be good for her.

And that’s where she was, making the final connection, when Matt arrived. He was dressed for school and sat down next to her. “I’m sorry about what happened yesterday. They arrested Luke… and a good thing too.”

Lora completed the hookup and then sat cross-legged. “He deserves it—that’s for sure.” She was silent for a moment. “Matt…”

“Yeah?”

“Can you keep a secret? An important secret?”

“Sure. How ‘bout that time you cut school? I never told.”

“No, you didn’t. And I appreciate that. Well, here’s the deal. My father and some of his friends are going to leave the hab about nine o’clock tonight. And I’m going with them.”

“Holy cow! You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Nope, I’m not kidding. We’re going to take some seeds to people who need them. But I couldn’t leave without telling you. You’re the only friend I have.”

Matt looked embarrassed. “Yeah, well, that goes for me too. If you leave I’ll be all alone.”

“You’ll have Cory.”

“Do me a favor… Take him with you.”

Lora laughed as she stood. “Thanks for everything, Matt. And remember, don’t tell.”

“I won’t,” Matt promised. “Take care of yourself.”

Lora turned and walked away. Tears were flowing by then, and she didn’t want him to see.

The rest of the day passed slowly—from her perspective, at least. Because unlike her father, who had lots of mysterious errands to run, all Lora could do was place some personal items in a case her father gave her and wait. They had dinner at six and tried to take naps, but Lora couldn’t sleep.

Finally seven forty-five rolled around and George gave Lora a final briefing. “Okay, hon, we’re going to leave at eight o’clock straight up. Bring the case I gave you but nothing else. It would look suspicious if we were seen carrying all sorts of stuff through the habitat. That’s why everything we need was assembled over a period of months and is stored close to our point of departure.”

“What about clothes?” Lora wanted to know.

“Like I said, everything you’ll need is waiting for you. Now, when we leave the apartment, we will follow the walkway to Corridor Four, and that will lead us back to the emergency stairwell.” Lora was familiar with the stairwells, having used them for short trips from level to level and during fire drills, so she nodded.

“We’re going to follow the stairwell all the way down,” her father declared. “I have a key to the door at the bottom. It will allow us to access one of the catwalks that we use to maintain the biofiltration plant.”

George was a biofiltration engineer, one of a team responsible for the habitat’s septic system and wastewater treatment plant. As such, he had access to the area under the Sanctuary’s lowest level. “Once we reach the central column,” George continued, “we’ll board a service elevator.” That was important because the regular elevators were transparent.

“Once we reach the very top, one of our people will be there to let us into the A Deck maintenance area,” George continued. “That’s where we’ll gear up prior to opening a hatch and leaving the Sanctuary. Do you have any questions?”

Lora had questions. Lots of them. Would the leavers be able to leave? Would the barbarians kill them? Would she freeze to death? But Lora couldn’t bring herself to voice her fears, not given the look of bright-eyed excitement on her father’s face. So she shook her head. “No, I don’t have any questions.”

“Okay,” George said. “Let’s take one last look around. It’s the last time you’ll see this dump.”

But it wasn’t a dump. It was Lora’s home, the only one she could remember. She knew there had been an upper-level apartment once, back before her father began to express his political views, back when her mother was alive. Lora felt a momentary longing for the mother she had never known, double-checked to make sure that the picture of her was in the case, and wondered if her death had something to do with her father’s radical views.

But there was no time for further contemplation as George led her out onto the walkway and the door closed behind her. The click seemed unnaturally loud to Lora’s ears as she followed her father to Corridor 4, where they took a left. From that point, everything went just as he said it would. He opened the door marked “AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY” and led her across a long catwalk. Greenish water swirled below as huge blades kept it moving, just part of the complicated machinery that made the habitat possible.

Having reached the central platform, they boarded a service elevator, which carried them up to the very top of the structure, where a uniformed protector was waiting for them—one of the same men Lora had spoken with the night before! Except now he was armed with an assault rifle and a pistol. Lora’s heart nearly stopped, and some of her fear must have been visible on her face, because the protector smiled. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m on your side.”

George chuckled. “He sure is. Officer Fry has been extremely helpful. In fact, it’s safe to say we wouldn’t be able to carry out our mission without him.”

Another lift arrived and five people got off. Lora recognized three of them as friends of her father’s, meaning individuals who came to visit once in a while. It wasn’t long before even more leavers arrived—sixteen in all, counting the Larsys. That was when Lora realized something important, to her at least, and that was the fact that there weren’t any other teenagers in the group. She was all alone. That shouldn’t bother you, she told herself, because you were alone at school too. But somehow it did.

There was a lot of excited chatter, which stopped when George spoke. “Keep it down, everybody—we’ll have plenty of time to talk later on. Larry? Lead the way.”

Officer Fry opened a door, and one of the leavers held it as the rest of them trooped through and stepped onto a circular road. After following it past a number of alcoves and bays, the group arrived at the point where the path passed between opposing sets of doors.

The one on the left was labeled “HATCH 5,” and a sign on the one directly across from it said “VEHICLE STORAGE.” Fry slipped a key card into a slot next to the vehicle storage bay. Two vehicles were revealed as a corrugated door rumbled up and out of sight They were orange, boxy, and equipped with four sets of tracks each—two in front and two in back. “They’re Sno-Cats,” George explained. “The keepers haven’t allowed anyone to do anything more than maintain them for the past twenty-five years. Our gear is aboard and they’re ready to go.”

It soon became apparent that two of the leavers knew how to drive the machines, because they were quick to open doors, climb aboard, and start the engines. They pulled out onto the circular road, where they paused to let the rest of the group board. Suddenly, a phalanx of protectors surged into sight with weapons at the ready. One of them shouted, “Stop!” and fired a warning shot. There was a clang as the bullet hit metal and ricocheted away.

And there, at the very front of the group, was council member Hal Mackey, Matt’s father. That was when Lora knew the horrible truth. The entire group had been betrayed. And it was her fault.

Chapter Two

Jackson, Wyoming, USA

Except for the yellow bruise off to the west, the rest of the sky was gray. And according to the tiny gauge clipped to his ragged parka, the temperature was thirty-eight degrees, a warm spring day.

Tre was lying on his stomach under an old tarp. It was a standard part of his kit and could be used as a shelter or, in this case, a hide. And hiding was an important skill in a world ruled by predators. Tre had spent the last day and a half watching the town of Jackson, Wyoming, through a pair of highly prized Nikon binoculars. They were small and light and had been found lying next to a skeleton. Two skeletons, actually, an adult and a child, spooned together in the stained remains of a cheap sleeping bag. Had they been sick? Or died of starvation? Either was possible in post apocalyptic America.

Tre pushed the memory aside in order to scan the town below. He had a good vantage point about halfway up Snow King Mountain, just off what had been the path of a chair lift. Some of the cables were down now, as was one of the towers, and trees were repopulating the former ski runs.

The downtown area was laid out in a grid pattern that made it easy to draw on the notebook near his right hand. Because while Tre had a much-creased map of Wyoming, he didn’t have a map of Jackson.

It looked as though half the town had been ravaged by fire at some point, and it was safe to assume that it had been looted as well, but there were very few tracks in the snow-covered streets. Tre figured that three, maybe four people lived in Jackson now, each of whom was probably aware of the others. Did they get along? Or were they trying to kill one another? There was no way to tell. But Tre hadn’t seen any signs that gangs roamed the ruins below, and that was important, because while he could handle one or two assailants if necessary, a group could take him down. That’s why more than a day had been spent watching the town from afar.

Satisfied that he knew as much about Jackson as he was likely to learn from the mountainside, Tre put the binoculars away and began to make the necessary preparations. The plan was to go down, find a hidey-hole, and fort up. Then he’d get up early and go looking for tech, books, and food, in that order—not because he didn’t need food but because he was very unlikely to find any in a town that had been picked over by thousands of people for a period of fifty years.

But tech? Lots of people lacked the knowledge required to use or repair it. And books, well, that was where Tre’s knowledge of technology had been acquired.

So Tre folded the tarp into thirds and rolled it into a tight tube, which he attached to the bottom of his aluminum pack frame just above the precious mummy bag. The Whittaker Marmot sack was filthy, and home to a rank smell, but it could keep Tre warm down to forty below, a very important asset found in a compartment under the floor of a wrecked van. It was why Tre always looked inside vehicles—even if there was every reason to believe that countless other people had already done so. All it took was one Marmot bag to make hundreds of such investigations worthwhile.

Tre strapped the aluminum snowshoes onto his boots, struggled to stand, and bent to retrieve his pack. It felt lighter than it had when he set out from home. But if luck was with him, it would soon be heavy again.

The last step was to open his Savage model 311-A double-barreled shotgun and check to make sure that it was loaded. The weapon was, like everything else, a compromise. Being a .410, it didn’t pack the punch that a twelve-gauge would. On the other hand, the ammo was lighter, and Tre could fire the sawed off weapon one-handed and was likely to hit something if he did. Then he could fire again or run, the second option being the one he favored most.

There was a comforting click as he closed the gun and returned it to the holster strapped to his right thigh. That left Tre’s hands free to use the hand-carved trekker poles. They helped Tre maintain his footing as he made his way down through a scattering of evergreens toward the flatland below. The widely spaced trees weren’t much; however, some cover was better than none.

There were tracks, but not many, since it was hard for animals to find enough food. Tre saw some elk scat, what might have been raccoon prints, and the kind of scratch marks that birds make, but nothing human. And that was the main concern as Tre arrived at the tree line, where he paused to look around. There were no pillars of smoke to be seen, which was a good thing. It was important to cross the open area as quickly as possible.

Except for the occasional caw of a crow, the crunching sound the snowshoes made as they broke through the crusty snow, and the rasp of his own breathing, there was nothing but silence. Having crossed the open area, Tre removed his snowshoes prior to entering a half-burned house. Some partially charred stairs up to the second floor where he took a look around.

After watching for a while, he concluded that if the local residents were aware of his presence, they were content to wait for him rather than come out and do battle. Of course, if they were up high, in a church tower, for example, a single rifle shot could take him out.

For one brief moment Tre wished that he had brought a rifle instead of the sawed-off shotgun. But he dismissed the thought a second later, knowing that while it would be nice out in the open, a long-barreled weapon would be a disadvantage inside buildings. And that was where the good stuff was likely to be located.

So Tre left the house and followed one side of an arrow-straight street to the center of town. Where possible, Tre minimized his exposure to structures taller than two stories. He was leaving tracks, but that couldn’t be helped. All he could do was pause frequently, check his back trail, and stay alert.

Eventually Tre arrived at what a lopsided sign said was Central Square Park—and paused to look at an arch made out of elk antlers. At first he thought the structure was associated with one of the new religions, some of which involved animal worship, but then he concluded that the structure was too old for that. A prewar tourist attraction perhaps, although he couldn’t imagine going very far to see it.

The snowshoes would be a problem once he began to search buildings, so Tre took them off and strapped them to the pack frame. He was wearing a pair of old Itasca Winter Pac boots. They were one size too large, but a pair of bulky wool socks made up for that. They left enormous footprints as he made his way down the street.

There were lots of stores. Most had broken windows and doors that hung askew. Trash lay strewn all over the floors, and the walls were covered with graffiti. Tre noticed that spray paint had been used to create the first layers of words and images. Then, as spray paint became increasingly difficult to find, graffiti had been added using other substances, some of which could have been blood. Equally noteworthy was the fact that what looked like the most recent additions included a lot of misspelled words. Literacy was fading fast.

Store after store had been stripped of everything useful—or obviously useful, since Tre knew that many of the things that looters left behind could be repurposed. But he couldn’t carry display racks, electrical fixtures, or electric motors home with him. There were some trivial finds, however, including a candle that had rolled into a kick space, a scattering of pennies, which could melted down for the copper they contained, and a brand-new ballpoint pen, all of which went into his pack.

After he’d entered and exited two dozen stores, a sign caught Tre’s attention. It was faded but still legible: “JACKSON UNDERGROUND.” That suggested a subterranean shopping area—and there was a flight of stairs that led down to double doors. But they were blocked by a pile of debris that included a metal desk, a rolling garbage bin, and all sorts of other trash, not the sort of stuff that was likely to wind up there by accident.

No, what Tre was looking at was someone’s attempt to seal off the underground area. Because they were living there? Probably. But when? If recently, Tre would be well-advised to steer clear. But if the people who were responsible for the barricade were gone, it would be safe to enter.

Tre was interested and, more than that, determined to find another way in. The next fifteen minutes were spent casting about. Eventually he found a second entrance down the street, but that was blocked as well. So Tre began to search the surrounding stores, and it wasn’t long before he found what he was looking for.

It was inside a place called the Cowboy Bar, where saddles served as stools. And there, behind the counter, Tre found a trapdoor, one that had been used recently, judging from the fresh scuff marks around it.

Rather than lift the door and peer inside, Tre took a moment to shed his pack and hide his trekking poles under the bar. Then he removed a length of cord from a pocket and tied one end to the trapdoor. Would the door open when he pulled on the rope? And if it did, would someone fire up at him? Or worse yet, would a bomb explode? He’d triggered one six months earlier and had been lucky to escape with only minor injuries.

There was only one way to find out. Tre jerked on the cord. Nothing happened. Maybe the hatch was secured from below or maybe it was stuck. Tre placed the remains of a wooden chair under the rope to act as a fulcrum and tried again. This time it worked. The door came up and flopped onto the floor. There were no gunshots or explosions. So far, so good.

After removing a much-treasured squeeze light from a cargo pocket, Tre approached the opening with the .410 out and ready. The flashlight made a gentle wheezing sound as he squeezed the handle. Then, as he thumbed the switch, a blob of light slid across the floor and into the hole. Slowly, weapon at the ready, Tre looked down through the hatch.

The first thing he saw was bright metal. An aluminum ladder was positioned directly under the opening, a clear confirmation that he was on the right track. But what, if anything, waited below?

Tre looked around, spotted one of the few beer mugs that hadn’t been broken, and dropped it through the hole. He heard it shatter and braced himself for a burst of gunfire. There wasn’t any.

Relieved but still wary, Tre considered his options. The opening was too small to pass through while wearing his pack. Should he drop it down—only to have someone snatch it? Or leave it up top, where the same thing could occur?

After giving the matter some thought, Tre tied the cord to the pack and positioned it right next to the hatch. Then, with shotgun in hand, he descended the ladder. There was some light from above but not enough, so Tre felt for the flashlight. Three strong squeezes brought the device to life. What he saw was a corridor with storefronts on both sides. All sorts of garbage littered the floor, including a scattering of what might have been human bones. But he was used to that. Millions of people had died in the United States and very few of the bodies had been buried.

There was a rustling noise from the left, and Tre’s heart jumped as he brought the light around. Red rat eyes glared at him before disappearing into a nearby hole. He was surprised to find that he had been holding his breath, and let it out. Then he felt for the cord, gave a sharp jerk, and managed to catch the pack as it fell. All that remained was to climb up and close the trapdoor. It was always a good idea to conceal his presence to whatever extent possible.

Down below again, Tre shouldered his pack and set off to explore the underground mall. If he found things to scavenge, then well and good—but he was also in need of a place to fort up. He entered a souvenir shop only to discover that while there were still plenty of coasters, elk horns, and wind chimes to be had, all the good stuff was gone. That included sweatshirts, T-shirts, and every single item in a case labeled “POCKETKNIVES.” But that was to be expected.

The same was true of the women’s clothing store next door, the Ski Chalet down from that, and the completely empty Wine Rack, all viewed via the fluctuating illumination provided by the squeeze light. After a long series of disappointments, Tre found himself standing in front of a store called Book Ends. That made his heart beat just a little bit faster. What, if anything, waited inside? Unfortunately, as both the temperature and the literacy rate fell, entire libraries had gone up in flames as people burned books in return for a few moments of transitory warmth. So it was with a feeling of trepidation that he entered the store.

Predictably enough, it had been ransacked. And while Tre had no way to know what the stock had been like the day the first wave of looters had entered the mall, he guessed that hundreds of books had been taken. But hundreds were left! Some were on shelves, but many were on the floor, where they had been trampled.

Still, just the sight of them was sufficient to fill Tre’s heart with something akin to lust. Who knew what wonders lay before him! History, science, and entertainment, and new friends to see him through the long, lonely evenings at home.

The voice came from behind him. “This is my mall—and this is my store.”

Tre whirled to find himself face-to-face with an old man. He had a bald pate, hair that hung like a stringy curtain around his head, and eyes that looked like chips of coal. He was dressed in a plaid shirt, khaki-colored bib overalls, and a pair of mukluks, footgear that was just right for sneaking around. And one more thing, a fact that spoke volumes: the apparition was well fed. The .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol was very steady. But so was the .410.

It was a standoff. Or was it? The old man had been in a position to shoot Tre between the shoulder blades. So why hadn’t he? Because, Tre reasoned, the man wanted to talk. “My name is Tre.”

The old man nodded. “I’m Bob. You holster your weapon and I’ll holster mine.”

“You first.”

Bob smiled and two rows of yellow teeth appeared. “We’ll do it on three. One, two, three.” As the old man lowered his weapon, Tre did likewise. Both guns slid into their respective holsters, or in Bob’s case into a pocket. “So,” he said. “You can stay the night—but it will cost you.”

Tre was willing to consider that. He preferred to avoid violence when possible and wanted access to the bookstore. “Okay… I’ll give you three rounds for your .45 and I get all the books I can carry.” It was the longest speech he’d made in months.

Bob blinked as he stared into the fluctuating light. “Make it ten rounds.”

“Five.”

“Eight.”

“Seven, and that’s final. A full magazine… not bad for a few books.”

Bob paused and delivered a nod. “Okay, seven it is. Four now and three in the morning.”

“Have you got a flashlight?”

Bob turned, went outside, and lit a lantern. Then he brought it in.

That allowed Tre to tuck the squeeze light away and slip his left hand into a pants pocket. He fingered the bullets there, chose four, and brought them out, all the while keeping his right hand free to draw the .410.

Bob examined each cartridge with great care, and that was wise. According to what Tre had read, there had been something like 350 million guns in America prior to the nuclear war, a number roughly equivalent to the population. But two-thirds of the people were dead now, and that meant there was no shortage of firearms in post apocalyptic America. But ammo? That was precious. Some people, Tre included, could make reloads for some of their weapons, but most couldn’t, and he figured Bob was one of them.

“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” Bob said as the bullets disappeared into a pocket. “I’m going to serve you dinner, and no, you won’t have to pay. It will be nice to have some company for a change.”

Tre didn’t want to eat dinner with the old man but didn’t wish to offend him either, especially with a treasure trove of books at stake. “Okay, thanks.”

Bob lifted the lamp shoulder high and led Tre out into the passageway. The lantern threw grotesque shadows onto the walls as Tre followed the old man to a circular area that had once been at the center of a small food court. And there, surrounded by curved benches, was an open fireplace. It had once been a magnet for skiers and consisted of a fire pit, a sheet-metal hood, and a chimney. Hooks had been added under the hood so Bob could hang chunks of elk meat over the fire. The result was a primitive smoker, and Tre was impressed. “Have a seat,” Bob said, “and I’ll get things going.”

So Tre dumped his pack and sat on one of two mismatched chairs as Bob placed splinters of wood on the glowing coals. “I keep her tamped down during the day,” the old man said. “You didn’t see any smoke, did ya?”

“Nope,” Tre replied as the kindling burst into flames.

“Good, ’cause I don’t need any trouble. I hope you like elk chili, ’cause that’s what we’re having. We’ll have a drink first.”

Tre didn’t like the taste of alcohol and never used it for anything other than a disinfectant, but he could tell that the drink was important to Bob, so he let his host pour a dollop of amber liquid into a metal cup. “There you go,” Bob said as he handed it over. That’ll fix what ails ya.”

Tre forced a smile and pretended to take a sip. “So what do you think?” Bob demanded.

“It’s good,” Tre lied, “real good.”

The old man took a swig and grinned. “You got that right.”

The fire crackled as Bob threw some more wood on it. Tre saw that a makeshift mattress and sleeping bag were laid out on one of the benches that surrounded the fireplace. That made sense. Bob could keep a fire going during most of the night and let it die down at about three a.m. Having stoked the fire, Bob turned his attention back to Tre. “You don’t talk much, do ya?”

Tre forced a smile. “I don’t have much to say.”

Bob seemed to consider that. “Most people talk too much. Not me, though. I’m a listener.” Tre nodded and pretended to sip his drink.

“You’re black,” Bob said accusingly, as if Tre had done something wrong.

“Brown.”

“Black, brown, it’s the same thing.”

Tre shrugged. “If you say so.”

“I do. Black people caused the war.”

“India attacked Pakistan, they responded, and China got involved.”

“And all of them people are black, right?”

“No.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

The old man considered that. “Well, it doesn’t matter, does it? You weren’t round then. I was, but I don’t remember it. How old are you anyway?”

Tre was seventeen but knew that divulging his actual age might put him at a disadvantage. “I’m twenty.”

“I envy you,” Bob said feelingly. “I’m sixty-seven, near as I can make out, and everything hurts.” Tre couldn’t think of anything to say. Most lives were shorter now. Very few people made it to sixty, much less sixty-seven.

“Enough talking,” Bob said. “Time to eat.” And with that he went over to pull an improvised swing arm out into the open. A fire-blackened cast-iron pot was dangling from it, and as Bob removed the lid, a mouthwatering odor wafted into the air. Tre took the opportunity to pour his drink into what had been a planter.

“I use chopped elk, onions, tomato sauce, kidney beans, chili powder, and brown sugar,” Bob said. “I used to add cumin but ran out. There you go,” the old man said as he ladled some brown brew into a plastic bowl. “Tuck into that.”

Tre accepted the bowl and a dirty spoon. The chili smelled delicious, but his mother had taught him not to eat until she sat down. And she taught him something else, too, what she called street smarts, even if he didn’t spend much time on the streets. “Be careful what you eat, son… and always think about who’s giving it to you. We live in troubled times.”

That’s why Tre waited to make sure that Bob was going to eat from the same pot. Once he did, Tre figured the chili was safe to eat. And it was good. Very good. The bowl was empty three minutes later. Bob smiled knowingly. “Good, huh?”

“Very.”

“Would you like some more?”

Tre extended his bowl. “Yes, please.”

Bob served up a refill, and as Tre went to work on his second helping of chili, the older man peppered him with questions. Where was he from? Where was he headed? And what had he seen along the way?

Tre answered the first two questions with lies but tried to answer the third as honestly as he could. That was the least he could do to repay Bob’s openhanded generosity. “There isn’t much to see. I try to avoid people. But I did talk to a couple near Hoback Junction. They think the weather is getting better.”

Bob produced a resonant belch, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and nodded sagely. “That’s true. Or so it seems to me. But the change is so gradual I’ll be dead by the time things really improve. How about the food lords? What are they up to?”

Tre knew Bob was referring to the scattering of individuals who, for one reason or another, controlled large amounts of food—or the means to produce it. They lived like the feudal lords he’d read about in a book called Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell. Some people willingly surrendered themselves to the lords in return for food and a place on one of their sprawling estates. Others were forced into lives of slavery. “I try to steer clear of them,” Tre answered, “but they continue to fight each other.”

Of course Bob knew that. So by the time the dinner was over, he hadn’t gained much. But Tre got the impression that the other man was satisfied with his end of the bargain. “You can bed down next to the fire if you want to,” Bob offered.

“Thanks,” Tre replied, “but I’m used to sleeping alone.”

If Bob was offended, there was no sign of it on his weathered face. “Okay, there’s plenty of room. Pick a spot and I’ll see you in the morning.”

Tre thanked his host, took his gear, and left. With the aid of the squeeze light, he was able to find a spot directly across the corridor from the bookstore. It had been a travel agency, and by moving some furniture, he was able to clear a spot large enough to lie down in. Then, after getting ready for bed, he let the light run down. The result was total darkness. There were sounds, though, including the rattle of a tin can as something nosed it, an occasional groan from the building itself, and the distant tinkle of breaking glass, all of which seemed harmless enough. Still, it was Tre’s intention to stay awake until he was well clear of the town. Then and only then could he hole up and rest.

As Tre waited for the night to pass, he told himself stories, invented new machines, and thought about girls—mysterious creatures he knew next to nothing about but felt drawn to. At some point he drifted off to sleep, because he awoke with a jerk and didn’t know why.

It was still dark, too dark to see. But Tre thought he could detect some movement, and hear it too, even if the sound was nothing more than the swish of fabric on fabric, and what might have been a metallic click. That was followed by a pause and a sudden shaft of light as a battery-powered light came on. It swept left, then right, and settled on the tarp-draped pile of trash. Then Tre saw a series of bright flashes as old Bob fired the .45. Blam! Blam! Blam!

The empty casings were still bouncing off the floor when Tre fired from the corner. The Tarus revolver was unique in that it could handle either .45 rounds or .410 shotgun shells, and that was why Tre carried it. Having a pistol that could eat the same ammo as the shotgun was a definite plus. At the moment, all five of the weapon’s chambers were loaded with .45 hollow points. Tre fired four of them into the spot where Bob should be. He heard a grunt as the light clattered to the floor and lay aimed at a wall. Next came a soft thump.

But was Bob dead, wounded, or faking it? Tre slid the revolver back into its shoulder holster and took hold of the .410. Then, with his heart beating wildly, he went to retrieve the light. As the beam swept across the floor, Tre saw that three of the four shots had hit their target. That didn’t make him happy or sad. It simply was. Perhaps it was because old Bob wasn’t the first man he had killed.

Two years earlier he had returned from a hunting trip to discover that his mother had been murdered and their food stolen. So after burying his mother, he took his scope-mounted .22 rifle and went hunting—not for rabbits, but for men. There were two sets of tracks. After following them for two days, fifteen-year-old Tre caught up with the killers near Etna, Wyoming. It was dark and they were sitting around a campfire. Tre put them down with one bullet apiece. Then he stripped the bandits of everything useful and left their bodies for the coyotes.

And there had been a man roughly twelve months after that, a half-crazy scarecrow who dropped on Tre from a tree and tried to cut his throat. Fortunately, by pointing the .410 back over his shoulder, Tre had been able to blow the creature away. A second shot finished the job.

Still, Tre had never reconciled himself to violence, and he blamed himself for remaining in the underground mall even though he could sense that Bob wasn’t trustworthy. His hunger for books had overridden his common sense.

Unfortunately, Bob had not only shot holes in the multipurpose tarp but fallen on it as well, so Tre elected to leave it. The .45 would come in handy, though, as would the extra magazine Tre found in a pocket, and the Gerber folding knife on Bob’s belt. Having collected those items, Tre took a moment to recharge the Tarus with alternating .410 and .45 rounds before restoring the weapon to its holster.

Then, with his pack on his back and Bob’s flashlight to show the way, Tre left the travel agency. He could feel the pull the bookstore exerted on him but refused to give in. The first priority was to search for Bob’s hoard. And there was bound to be one.

Upon returning to the fire pit, Tre saw that a small blaze was still burning. He had no interest in most of Bob’s personal items. He did take a pair of reading glasses, however, which might come in handy someday, or could be traded for something else.

Then, as he swept the beam of light back and forth across the floor, Tre saw a clear wear pattern in the filth. The trail led down the corridor to a door labeled “MAINTENANCE.” Tre saw that a new hasp and a heavy-duty padlock had been added to the barrier. I missed the key, he thought, and knew he would have to return to the travel agency.

Tre retraced his steps, entered the office, and knelt next to the body. Now that he knew what to look for, the chain was obvious. After pulling it free, he saw the key. Rather than wrestle the chain off over Bob’s head, Tre cut it free with the Leatherman tool he carried on his belt.

With key in hand, he went straight back to the door. The lock opened easily, as did the door. Tre found himself standing at the entrance of what amounted to a vault.

Shelves lined the left wall, and large pieces of smoked meat hung from hooks on the right. That was when Tre realized that one of them was shaped like a human leg. He remembered the chili, felt the contents of his stomach rise, and threw up on the floor. After a series of convulsive heaves, Tre stumbled away to vomit in the hall.

Finally, with nothing left to give, Tre fumbled for his water bottle. Having rinsed his mouth, he went back to where the flashlight lay and picked it up. Now he understood. The blocked entrances, trapdoor, and ladder were all part of an elaborate plan to lure scavengers into his underground kingdom. Then Bob would invite them to dinner, enjoy an evening of conversation, and kill the unsuspecting guest. If they were carrying something of value, that went into the vault. And after some butchery, the body parts were added to Bob’s larder. Had Tre been a drinker, or less vigilant, he would have been on a future menu.

Tre forced himself to ignore the stench of his own vomit and go back in. He directed the light away from the meat and over to the shelves. There were at least fifty cans of food, a variety of ammo, and a collection of valuable spices. Further back, laid out on a shelf, a jumble of long guns could be seen. And there were all sorts of other items too… some valuable and some whimsical: a cell phone, a Barbie doll, a sphere-shaped puzzle. The puzzle looked interesting, so Tre took it.

But he could only carry so much weight, so he was forced to make some tough decisions. Finally he chose to take ten cans of food, the spices, and the ammo home with him. A rifle, a shotgun, and Bob’s .45 would go into the Pelican rifle case that was stored in the back of the room. It was large enough to accommodate two boxes of bullets, cleaning kits, and some miscellaneous survival items. Once he was outside of Jackson, Tre would bury the case and everything in it, something he had done on previous occasions as well. Because home was only home so long as no one else discovered it. And if they did, Tre could use such a cache to make a fresh start.

Finally, with the pack on his back and the Pelican case in hand, Tre went back to the bookstore. The next two hours were pleasurable as well as frustrating—pleasurable because there were books for the taking, but they were heavy, and difficult decisions had to be made. Finally he settled on 101 Science Projects, Electronics for Dummies, The Invisible Man, a children’s book about dinosaurs, and three novels by authors he had read before, stories he would ration by reading no more than one chapter per night.

Then he had to break it off. He wanted to leave Jackson before the sun rose, and he was tired. Very tired. So Tre left the bookstore, climbed the aluminum ladder, and paused to retrieve his trekking poles. He couldn’t use them, not while carrying the gun case, so he tied them crosswise to the pack frame. After putting the snowshoes on, Tre clumped out onto the street. It was pitch-dark and Tre knew he would have to risk occasional blips from Bob’s flashlight in order to find his way. But it was extremely cold, and the chances were good that the rest of the town’s inhabitants were snug inside their various hidey-holes. Would one of them eventually take possession of Bob’s grubby kingdom and claim his supply of smoked meat? Tre shivered. He knew the answer was yes.

After glancing at his compass, Tre set off in southerly direction. The pack was heavy, as was the gun case, so he had to switch hands every now and then. Once he was on old Highway 89, it turned southwest for a little bit before going south again. The trick was to avoid running into the wrecks and debris that littered the snow-crusted road. Tre knew there was a slope off to his right but couldn’t see it. He also knew he was too tired to go very far, so he felt grateful as the sky began to lighten in the east, making it possible to scan the countryside. He hadn’t seen any smoke, which was good, but he knew the area wasn’t as deserted as it looked. And if the locals spotted a lone hiker carrying a pack and a Pelican case, they would come after him.

So it was with a sense of relief that he spotted a ridge on the left and the cell tower that was halfway up a steep slope. It would take all his remaining strength to reach it, and there was no guarantee that someone else hadn’t take up residence there, but based on previous experience, he didn’t think so. People knew they weren’t going to find anything they could use at a cell tower, so why climb up?

Having made his decision, Tre turned off onto the maintenance road that led up to the site and wished that there was a way to conceal his tracks. But barring a storm, there wasn’t. All he could do was plod up the hill with eyes fixed on the tower, willing himself to make it. Finally, after a twenty-minute slog, Tre was close to the top. He hadn’t seen any signs of habitation on the way up but knew better than to assume anything. So he put the case down, shrugged the pack off, and went forward with the .410 at the ready.

There were no tracks in the snow other than his own, and the door to the equipment shed at the base of the tower was open. Careful to expose as little of himself as possible, Tre took a look inside. About half of the interior was taken up with electronics, but there was an open area where he could lie down. Judging from the trash and scribblings on the wall, somebody had camped there before him. That was to be expected. All he cared about was the fact that no one had used the place recently.

Tre holstered the shotgun, did what he could to clean the shed out, and went back for his gear. Before getting settled, he removed the Remington Model 700 XCRII stainless from the case and checked to see if it was loaded. It was. He had no intention of hauling the scope-mounted weapon home but knew the rifle would be ideal should someone try to approach the shack from below.

After that, it was a relatively easy matter to unpack, heat some baked beans over a can of Sterno, and wash the meal down with melted snow. Then he went outside to scan his surroundings for any signs of trouble. There were none.

Tre never felt entirely safe, regardless of where he was, even at home. But with a metal shed to protect him, he could take a nap, get up, take a look around, and take another nap—not the most restful way to sleep, but the safest way to do so. The floor was hard, but the bag was warm, and Tre fell asleep in a matter of seconds. Dreams were waiting, and so was Bob.

Chapter Three

Near Fort Vermillion, Alberta, Canada

The leavers were gathered around the Sno-Cats, ready to board, when Hal Mackey and six protectors appeared. As the police charged out onto the perimeter road, Mackey shouted for the dissidents to surrender. But a man named Stan Valez had other ideas. He ran straight at Mackey, shouting obscenities. And that was when one of the police officers shot him.

The bullet hit Valez in the chest, plucked him off his feet, and dumped him onto the ground. None of the protectors had killed a citizen before, so the death stunned everyone except former police officer Larry Fry, who opened fire with his assault weapon. The slugs were intentionally aimed low, so most of the protectors had their legs knocked out from under them. But automatic weapons have a tendency to rise as they’re fired—and as Lora looked on she saw a bullet smash into Hal Mackey’s face. As he fell, George grabbed her arm. “Get on the Sno-Cat—now!”

Lora did as she was told, heard the doors slam, and felt the vehicle jerk into motion. As she looked out the window, she could see protectors sprawled in all sorts of positions. Most were out of action, but one fired a pistol. Fry shot her dead.

Hatch 5 was open by that time, and snowflakes swirled around the Sno-Cat as the V-shaped blade mounted on the front of the vehicle pushed through a snowdrift. The headlights swung wildly and Lora got a glimpse of stunted trees as the driver turned onto an old access road. Lora heard someone say, “The second Cat is out,” and knew the group was in the clear—all except for Stan Valez. He was dead and she was to blame. Lora began to cry, and a woman named Cassie Elano tried to comfort her. “Everything will be okay,” Cassie said, but Lora knew better. Everything wouldn’t be okay, couldn’t be okay after what she’d done. The Cat bounced wildly as it passed over an obstacle, the headlights bored holes in the darkness, and the wilderness consumed them.

Lora stopped crying after a while and sat with her eyes closed and listened to the adults talk. The majority believed there was very little chance that the council would send protectors after them. For one thing, the leavers had both Sno-Cats. Even so, the protectors could follow on snowmobiles if they chose to. But most thought they wouldn’t. The keepers feared the outer world and were unlikely to send protectors into it.

Regardless, the leavers wanted to put some distance between themselves and the Sanctuary. The plan was to keep going. Eventually the voices started to fade, and the drone of the engine lulled Lora to sleep. When she awoke, it was to find that the Sno-Cat was stopped. It was dark outside and she could see snow falling through the beams from the headlights. “Where are we?”

“About a hundred miles south of the Sanctuary,” Cassie replied. “There’s a restaurant off to our left. Fry took a couple of men to check it out. Assuming it’s clear, we’ll go in and take a break.”

The all clear came a few minutes later, and both Snow-Cats pulled into the area behind the restaurant. Lora felt a blast of cold air as somebody opened a door. A man named Harvey Nix instructed them to bring all the packs inside, and so they did. The snow was about a foot deep, making it difficult to walk, and because Lora was wearing school shoes rather than boots, her feet were cold and wet by the time she entered the building.

Battery-powered lamps were set up on tables in a back room where the light wouldn’t be visible through the front windows. The building had clearly been looted, but most of the furniture was intact. “Put the packs on the tables,” Harvey Nix instructed. “Then look for the one with your name on it. Once you find it, I suggest that you remove the parka and boots. You’ll want to wear them from this point forward.”

One of the adults called Lora’s name and waved her over. The pack was dark blue and clearly full. A ground tarp, sleeping bag, and snowshoes were attached to it. Lora felt grateful. Now she had something of her own. But once the parka and boots were removed from the pack, it was half-empty. That was something of a shock and made her wonder. Did the group have enough supplies?

Only one pack went unclaimed—the one with the name “Stan Valez” on it. “We’ll divvy Stan’s stuff up during the next couple of days,” Nix said.

His statement triggered a series of comments. “Poor bastard.”

“Did you see that? He charged them!”

“Yeah, but how did the protectors know?”

“Hal Mackey was with them.”

“Okay, but how did he know?“

The last question was followed by a moment of silence. George Larsy broke it. His expression was bleak. “What about that, Lora? Do you know how Mr. Mackey found out?”

Lora felt an overwhelming sense of shame as all eyes focused on her. She looked down at her feet. “I told his son, Matt. He promised not to tell.”

George nodded. “I think we can assume that Matt broke his promise to you. Just as you broke your promise to me. I’m very sorry,” George said as he looked from face to face. “I thought I could trust Lora and I was wrong. I hope you can forgive us.”

“Tell it to Stan,” one of the men said bitterly.

“She’s only a kid,” Cassie put in.

“A stupid kid,” one of the others said, and Lora knew he was right. Trusting Matt had been very stupid indeed.

The impromptu meeting broke up as people went to work pulling on boots and inspecting the items in their packs. That was when George came over to wrap an arm around Lora’s shoulders. She was sobbing. “I’m sorry, honey… but there was no way to conceal what you did—and it would have been wrong to try. Don’t worry. Time will pass, and as people get to know you, feelings will change.”

Lora wiped her face with her sleeve. She didn’t believe it but nodded anyway.

After spending the night in the restaurant, the leavers got up, made individual breakfasts, and were back in the Sno-Cats by nine a.m. There had been no signs of pursuit, and morale was high, the single exception being Lora. Her father spoke to her, as did Cassie, but the rest of the group seemed determined to ignore her. But you’re used to that, Lora told herself. And you deserve it.

Lora retreated into herself as the Sno-Cat followed the highway south. And there was plenty to think about. She loved her father but knew him to be an idealist and less than pragmatic. Yet there had been no reason to assume that all the leavers were equally lame. To the contrary, Lora had assumed that the others were competent. Unfortunately, as the hours passed, they proved her wrong.

The first problem was that half of the Sno-Cat’s fuel supply was gone. She could see that by looking at the gauge. And while math wasn’t Lora’s best subject, she knew that if the Cat could hold twenty-five gallons of fuel and it was crawling along at ten miles per hour, the leavers could travel only 250 miles before they ran out of gas. Then what?

After asking a series of questions, she was able to learn that, no, the group didn’t expect to find any additional fuel, and, yes, they planned to proceed on foot. The prospect didn’t seem to worry her companions in spite of the fact that at least half of them were clearly out of shape.

But given her age and lack of social standing, Lora knew none of them would listen to her. So all she could do was sit wedged between her father and Cassie while the wintry scenery rolled past. It seemed as if the two adults had a lot to say to each other, and while most of it had to do with their unrealistic hopes for the future, there were other undertones as well, what Lora recognized as man-woman stuff. And that was when Lora realized something very disturbing. Her father was interested in Cassie!

Not counting her mother, he’d never had a relationship before, not so far as Lora knew, so why now? Maybe the answer lay in the almost giddy sense of freedom that the people around her seemed to be experiencing. Whatever the reason, Lora didn’t like it. Her father was the one person she had left, and if Cassie took him she’d be all alone.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the Cats turned off the road and followed a long driveway up to a house and barn. They stopped short of the buildings so a team led by Fry could check them both.

With that out of the way, both vehicles were driven into the barn and parked side by side—for good, Lora thought, given the fact that the fuel gauge in her vehicle was sitting on “E.” That judgment was confirmed an hour later as the group met in the barn, which was empty except for the Cats, an old tractor, and lots of rusty junk. Lora could see her breath, but Fry said they couldn’t have a fire until nightfall, when the smoke wouldn’t show.

Once again it seemed as if Nix was in charge. “We’re about 225 miles south of the Sanctuary,” he said proudly, “and that means phase one of our plan is complete. Tomorrow marks the beginning of phase two. Since the Sno-Cats are nearly out of fuel, we’ll walk from this point forward. Each person will be responsible for their own pack, and we’ll take turns carrying the seeds.”

By that time Lora had seen the trunk-sized containers and knew that each one was filled with pilfered seed packets. The goal was to find the right community and plant them, triggering what the group imagined would be a virtuous cycle. As crops were harvested, seeds would be put aside for sharing, and that would lead to the rebirth of agriculture in North America.

It was a noble ambition, and one that Lora favored, the problem being that lots of things could go wrong. The leavers were committed to the concept, however, and if any members of the group had doubts, they didn’t choose to voice them.

“Okay,” Nix finished, “eat dinner and get some sleep. Most of us are out of shape, so we’ll take it easy tomorrow. The goal is to walk ten miles. Any questions?”

Lora had questions but couldn’t ask them publically, so she went to her father. He was busy laying his sleeping bag on a blue tarp and smiled when he saw her. “There you are! It might be a good idea to keep your clothes on tonight. It’s bound to get even colder.”

“Yes, Daddy,” Lora said obediently. “I have a question about tomorrow. What if we run into the barbarians? Mr. Fry won’t be able to defend us all by himself. Shouldn’t he train people to fight?”

“That’s a very good question,” George said, “and we discussed it. But here’s the problem. If we were to stay here for a week, we would consume seven days’ worth of rations, and we can’t afford to do that. So Mr. Fry will train us while we travel south.”

Much to Lora’s surprise, the answer made sense. It was risky, however, because there was a chance that the party would be attacked before the training took place, but at least the leavers had given the matter some thought.

So Lora said good night and went over to the area where the single females were going to sleep and got ready for bed. Fortunately it was warm inside the sleeping bag and it wasn’t long before Lora fell asleep.

Morning came quickly, and when it did most of the leavers rose in a good mood, eager to tackle the task ahead. Many ate hearty breakfasts, but Lora was the exception. Some of the adults thought the party would find food along the way, but Lora had seen the inside of the restaurant and thought that a substantial find was unlikely. She consumed half of what she wanted to, stored the rest of her breakfast in her pack, and spent the rest of the time adjusting her pack and getting used to the snowshoes.

Once the group was ready to go, Fry led them out. He had two people with him at all times. Their job was to break trail while learning whatever they could from the ex-protector, who, truth be told, hadn’t been trained for cross-country hikes. In fact, according to Lora’s analysis, the only thing Fry could teach them was how to use firearms. And once the rest of the adults acquired that knowledge, they would be as skilled as he was. Still, most of the leavers seemed to take comfort in the myth that Fry could protect them, and that was good for morale.

As the leavers left the barn, they stepped into bright sunshine, which was rare due to all the smoke and particulate matter thrown up into the atmosphere by the nuclear war five decades earlier. So the clear weather seemed like a good omen, and even Lora felt a sense of optimism as they set out. Not counting the trip in the Sno-Cat, and brief journeys to and from it, this was the first time she’d been outside the Sanctuary. She delighted in the cold, crisp air, the crunching sound that her snowshoes made as they broke through crusty snow, and all the wild vegetation. Wherever Lora looked, there were trees, bushes, and a wide variety of plants, all growing in a random manner. It was very different from the strictly controlled environment she was used to.

She’d seen pictures, of course, but the foliage looked greener, the ice crystals embedded in the top layer of snow glittered like tiny diamonds, and the sky was a beautiful blue. Up front she could see Fry, accompanied by her father and Don Beck, both armed with rifles. Then came Ed Dero and Jon Gore, carrying a trunk full of seeds on what amounted to a litter. Tim Hobbs and Ralph Kilmer were right behind them with a second box. Because each container weighed a hundred pounds, both men were carrying fifty pounds in addition to their packs. That made it difficult for them to match the pace of the people who weren’t carrying an extra burden.

Meanwhile, Lora was stepping on her own snowshoes. Gradually she discovered that it was necessary to adopt a wider stance. That helped, but there were slippery spots and places where it was necessary to negotiate obstacles. Lora began to watch for small trees that could be used to make trekking poles.

Then, as the road began to rise, the group was forced to use the traction devices on the bottom of their snowshoes and the pace slowed. Shortly thereafter the rotations started, and Lora and three adult women were brought forward to carry a seed box.

Lora didn’t mind carrying her share of the load but could tell that some of the older women were struggling, and she thought she knew why. It wasn’t the weight so much as the need to stay in step with each other. Something to think about.

Clouds gradually moved in to block the sun, and what originally seemed like fun became a grueling march. Three hours later, when the group arrived at what had been a combination gas station and country store, all of them were ready for a rest. The complex had been looted so many times that all the windows were broken, the shelves were empty, and the gas pumps were riddled with bullet holes. Still, it was a place to pause, and people went every which way looking for places to sit and eat.

Lora took the opportunity to seek out her father. He was sitting on a seed trunk next to Cassie, and as they looked up at her, the two adults wore guilty expressions, like kids caught raiding a cookie jar. Lora felt the usual sense of resentment but pushed it away. Her father desired some happiness, and if that meant Cassie, then so be it. Lora would get out of the way. “Hey, Lora,” George said awkwardly. “How’s it going?”

“Fine,” Lora replied, “but I think some people are struggling.”

George nodded. “You’re right. We’re out of shape.”

“That’s true,” Lora agreed, “but it’s more than that. The seed boxes are hard to carry.”

George frowned. “We aren’t going to dump the seeds, Lora… not after all we sacrificed to get here.”

“That isn’t what I have in mind,” Lora replied. “My pack is half-empty. So is yours. Why not divvy the seeds up between everyone in the group? Give the men more, younger women a little less, and old people a minimal amount. That would be fair and make it easier to walk through the snow.”

Cassie smiled. “I think Lora’s plan is absolutely brilliant.”

George nodded. “You’re right. She should take the idea to Harvey Nix.”

“No,” Lora said emphatically. “You tell him. He’ll listen to you.”

“She’s right,” Cassie put in. “People will get over the Mackey thing—but it’s still fresh in their minds.”

So George went to see Nix, and after a fifteen-minute discussion, the decision was made. All the leavers were told to empty their packs so that a package of seeds could be placed in the bottom of each. Lora wouldn’t get credit for the idea but didn’t care. It was going to make the trip easier for everyone concerned, and that was the main thing.

Just as the rest of the group finished the process of dividing the seeds, Beck appeared with an armful of poles. While some were made from aluminum tubing and some had been cut from dowels, all had been found in the piles of junk out back. There was a clatter as they spilled onto the ground. “There aren’t enough for everyone,” Beck announced, “but it’s a start. I cut them long so people can whittle them down to the length they need.”

Lora made no attempt to acquire poles for herself, knowing others needed them more, but made a note to keep her eyes peeled. In her opinion, the aluminum tubing looked like the way to go.

By the time it was over, the break had consumed two hours rather than the half hour Nix had envisioned. But having rid themselves of the boxes, and having acquired trekking poles for half the group, the leavers were able to move more quickly than before. The highway wasn’t what it had been fifty years earlier, yet thanks to the fact that the section they were on was flat and straight, it was easy to circumvent the few obstacles they encountered.

It wasn’t long before the group established a regular rhythm in which people went forward to learn about the firearms some of them had been issued, stayed for a while, and were rotated to the back of the column. Lora knew it was important to learn everything she could, so she forced herself into the rotation and was pleased to find that no one objected. Fry had the instructions down by the time she reached him, so it wasn’t long before she understood the difference between a rifle and a shotgun, the advantages of each, and the basics of gun safety.

At about three in the afternoon, they arrived at an intersection where roads came in from the east and west. There were some run-down buildings, some snow-humped cars, and a lot of tracks, all headed south. “It looks as if people are coming together for some reason,” Ed Dero observed. “I wonder what it is?”

Lora and Dero were walking side by side at that point, talking about his favorite subject, hydroponics. As the rest of the group came to a halt, they did too. A leadership conference followed but soon came to the obvious conclusion. The leavers couldn’t go back and didn’t have enough provisions to stay where they were, so all they could do was keep going and hope for the best.

As the group followed the tracks south, Lora was stunned by the vast sweep of the cloud-strewn sky, the snow-covered fields that seemed to stretch forever, and the arrow-straight road that ran all the way to the southern horizon. There was comfort in knowing that they could see trouble coming from a long way off. The final hours of the afternoon passed pleasantly, and by the time they arrived in what had once been a small hamlet, the dimly seen sun was low in the western sky. Nix called a halt, and after a quick look around, it was agreed that they would hole up in what had once been a post office.

The concrete-block building had been occupied recently, judging from the hot embers in the old-fashioned potbellied stove, an amenity that was too heavy to steal. It sat in the corner of a large room with a counter and storage area in the back.

As darkness fell, the leavers settled in, made their meals, and prepared for bed. Once Lora’s sleeping bag was laid out, she made a mug of hot tea and took it out back, where a semicircle of plastic chairs was waiting. The fact that no one had bothered to take them was a testimonial to how common lawn furniture was—and how many people had perished since the war.

Lora sat down, took a sip of tea, and savored the peace and quiet. Earlier in the day she had been struck by how vast the world was. Now, as she began to contemplate the future, she wondered what it would hold. That was a new experience. Inside the Sanctuary children took tests, were told what they would be good at, and were assigned to those occupations. They claimed it was a scientific way to make sure that all the citizens were happy, but Lora had doubts. Were the people who held the most desirable jobs the best qualified to do so? Or had they been selected for political reasons? Take Matt, for example. He smoked weed and he was slated for an administrative post—or had been. Would his father’s death put an end to that?

Lora was considering that possibility when she heard the muted pop-pop-pop of what might have been gunfire. And she wasn’t the only one. Fry materialized out of the darkness. He was standing in the spill of light from the open door. “Did you hear that?”

Lora looked up at him. “It could have been gunfire. Off thata way.”

Fry nodded and disappeared inside. A bustle of activity followed as people with guns appeared and took up defensive positions around the building. All the leavers were on edge after that, but there were no further noises and the night passed without incident.

Once daylight came, Fry and two other men went out to take a look around. When they came back, it was with disturbing news. Judging from all the hoofprints, a party of up to thirty riders had circled the hamlet during the night. But why?

That question was the subject of considerable debate. Should they continue to travel south, which would take them in the direction of the gunfire heard the night before, or should they remain where they were? The problem was that they didn’t have enough food to hole up in the post office. After much dithering, the decision was made to resume the march, a course of action Lora understood but was worried about.

So they ate, packed, and hit the road. As they had the day before, they made good progress, but there were no lighthearted conversations or friendly snowball fights today. The air felt clammy, and a thick layer of mist clung to the ground, making it impossible to see for more than five hundred yards. Thirty minutes into the march, Lyn Cho pointed to the east. “Look! Riders!”

“And there are more to the west,” Hobbs added.

“Okay, close it up!” Fry ordered, and they did. Not that Lora thought it would do much good if the horsemen attacked them. They had the advantage, so why not use it? Were they friendly? No, it seemed logical to believe that friendly people would come over and identify themselves.

All the leavers had were questions with no answers—until they came to the steel bridge. There was nothing special about it except for the bodies hanging from the superstructure, two male and one female. It looked as though all three had been shot. And there, waiting at the other end of the span, were three riders. They were dressed in a combination of regular clothing and crudely sewn animal skins. All were heavily armed, and the one in the middle was wearing a football helmet decorated with a set of antlers.

“Look!” Dero exclaimed. “They’re closing in on us!” and Lora saw that he was correct. Both columns of outriders had turned in on them and were approaching the highway. There was no avenue of escape—or that was what Lora though until Fry raised his assault weapon and fired. The bullets hit horses and men alike. Animals screamed and fell in a welter of blood. They were still in the process of dying when Fry waved the others forward. “Follow me!”

They did, shuffling on snowshoes, as the man with the antlers tried to rise. Fry shot him again. “Take cover behind the horses!”

Most of the leavers did so as the horsemen at the north end of the bridge came together into a single mob and trotted onto the bridge. Tom Jager, though, was standing with his weapon raised. “Kill them!” he shouted, and fired his shotgun. It was the first time he had done so, but the enemy was so close he couldn’t miss. A charge of double-aught buck caught a horse in the face and neck. The animal screamed piteously and reared up. That was when the rest of the leavers fired a ragged volley, and bullets tore into the horse’s belly. It went down, taking its rider with it.

A member of the horde fired a pistol in response. The heavy slug hit Jager in the chest and threw him to the ground. Lora was frightened but knew the enemy had to be stopped. She elbowed her way over to the body, struggled to free Jager’s semiauto pistol, and held it in both hands. A man wearing a wolf skull on top of his head was hiding behind a dead horse. She aimed the weapon at him and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.

The safety! The man with the wolf skull saw her and brought his rifle around. Lora felt a stab of fear as she thumbed the safety. Then she knew the pistol was ready to fire, so she did. Nine times.

The first bullet struck sparks off the bridge deck. The second hit the horse. The third struck the man’s rifle, which spoiled his aim. He was in the process of recovering from the jolt when a slug nicked his left ear, another passed through his throat, and the rest went wide. His hands came up in a futile attempt to stop the blood, then fell away as he lost consciousness.

As Lora was just starting to process that when Lou Martinez shouted a warning. “They’re attacking from behind!”

She turned to look, saw that Martinez was correct, and wondered how many bullets she had left. A large group of horsemen was thundering in from the south, but as a leaver fired at them, Lora noticed that the men on the north side of the bridge were backing away. “Don’t shoot!” she shouted. “They’re friends.”

That wasn’t necessarily true, of course, but Lora figured it was, and she feared what would happen if the leavers attacked potential allies. Fortunately her father had reached the same conclusion and ordered the group to stop shooting—and a good thing too, because as the riders from the south arrived, they passed between the leavers and took off after the barbarians.

What ensued was not pleasant to watch. The pursuers uttered what might have been war cries and urged their horses forward. The barbarians split into small groups of two or three. Whether that was by design or the result of panic wasn’t clear. One thing was for sure, however: it was a bad strategy. The southerners rode them down. Some of the fugitives fought and some tried to surrender, but it made no difference. All of them went down, at which point riders went from body to body and shot the wounded. Lora heard a mournful voice and turned to look. “Oh, no! They killed Linda.”

Lora remembered Linda Lemo as one of the people who would barely speak to her, but she still felt sorry as Fry scooped her body up and carried it to the south end of the bridge. It took two men to do the same with Jager. The price of victory had been high.

One of the riders came back across the bridge. He was bareheaded in spite of the cold and dressed in beautifully crafted buckskins. His hair was long and worn in two braids, both of which were decorated with feathers, and when he slid down off his horse, Lora saw that he was well over six feet tall. She guessed he might be in his thirties, but it was impossible to be sure. “You are on Blackfoot land,” he said solemnly, “and you are welcome here. Please accept my condolences regarding the members of your party who were killed. As you saw, the Blood Kin murdered three of our people as well. They, like many others, were on their way to our annual powwow.”

“Blood Kin?” Nix inquired.

“Yes. That is what they call themselves,” the Blackfoot replied. “They drink the blood of animals as a way to acquire animal virtues. That’s nonsense, of course, but it binds them together, and that makes them even more dangerous.”

“I see,” Nix said. “My name is Harvey Nix. And you are?”

“My birth name is Luke Twolakes.”

Lora got the impression that Twolakes might have other names but preferred to keep them to himself. The two men shook hands. “Thank you,” Nix said sincerely. “I fear that if you and your men hadn’t arrived when you did, we would be dead.”

Twolakes nodded. “You are welcome. The Blood Kin know about our annual gathering and often prey on those headed to the powwow. Small groups are easy to attack and carry items they hope to trade. My war party was sent to secure this section of the highway. Where are you headed?”

“South,” Nix said. “We’re hoping to find an agricultural community that will take us in.” Lora took note of the fact that Nix had chosen to omit any mention of the Sanctuary or the seeds.

“I know of several,” Twolakes said, “and one that might be of particular interest. But first we must take care of our dead.”

Having stripped the Blood Kin of everything useful, members of the war party cut the bodies of their people down and laid them across empty saddles. The horses could smell the fresh blood and were skittish.

Lora noticed that the warriors were dressed in a mix of regular clothing and deerskin garments. Some of them were armed with guns and some carried high-tech bows.

After a short meeting, it was agreed that all five dead bodies would be taken out into an adjoining field where a huge oak tree stood. Its branches were spread like welcoming arms and ready to receive the freshly cut saplings that were laid across them. Then, once the Native American bodies had been wrapped in blankets and bound with cord, they were placed on the platform. It was, Twolakes explained, the Blackfoot way.

Meanwhile two graves had been dug twenty feet away from the tree. Once they were ready, Jager and Lemo were lowered into them. As dirt was shoveled in on top of them, Tim Hobbs said a few words. “Forasmuch as it hath pleased almighty God in his great mercy to take unto himself the souls of brother Jager and sister Lemo, we therefore commit their bodies to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.”

There was a moment of silence followed by the flutter of wings as a black crow landed on one of the bodies in the tree above. It uttered a strident caw, ruffled its feathers, and eyed the humans below. Lora shivered and snow began to fall.

Chapter Four

Near Jackson, Wyoming, USA

After hiding the cache of weapons upslope from the cell site and napping through the day, Tre faced an important decision. Should he stay in the metal shed that night or hit the road in spite of the attendant dangers? A wan, barely seen moon helped make up his mind. There wasn’t a lot of light, but the snow seemed to amplify what there was, making it possible to travel, and it would be good to put some distance between himself and the highly visible shed.

So Tre hurried to prepare a hot meal, ate it, and put all his belongings in the pack. Then, with the .410 in its holster, snowshoes on his feet, and a trekking pole in each hand, he set out. Traveling was easier now thanks to the downhill slope and the fact that he wasn’t burdened with the heavy gun case. But with a pack full of books and canned goods, Tre knew he would soon start to feel the strain. He wasn’t about to jettison anything, however, so all he could do was tough it out.

Once on the highway, Tre turned south. The tracks he had seen earlier were still visible and could serve as a guide. The only sounds were the crunch of his footsteps, the swish of fabric as he moved, and the rasp of his own breath. He had a companion, though, and that was fear. Anything could be hiding along the side of the road waiting to attack, and bandits were as common as fleas. But, Tre reminded himself, waiting next to a highway hoping someone would come along in the middle of the night wasn’t much of a strategy. So why was he scared? Tre smiled grimly, paused to listen, and couldn’t hear a thing. The march continued.

The next hour passed without incident, but as Tre arrived at the top of a long slope and paused to rest, he heard a primal howl. Seconds later it was echoed by more howls and he felt his blood run cold. Wolves? They were common and could be dangerous. But Tre feared a pack of feral dogs even more. Unlike wolves, they knew all about humans and were attracted to them.

Tre looked up at the sky. Scattered clouds were drifting across the moon, which would set soon. That, plus the possibility of a run-in with a pack of dogs, suggested that he hole up till morning. But where? Someplace with a door would be nice. All he could do was push on and keep his eyes peeled.

So as Tre made his way down a gentle slope onto a flat stretch, the quickness of his movements reflected a new sense of urgency. Slide-step, slide-step, slide-step. All the while wondering if he would see the sudden rush of furry bodies and hear a chorus of deep-throated growls before the dogs attacked. He would fire the .410 and the revolver as well, but there would be too many of them and he would go down. Tre remembered the shed, cursed his decision to travel at night, and eyed the road ahead.

That was when his nostrils detected the scent of wood smoke and the situation became even worse. Humans were in the area, so there was another type of predator to worry about.

Tre continued to advance but more slowly now. What lay ahead? The bandits he had dismissed earlier? That would serve him right. Then he heard a snorting sound, followed by a muffled voice, and threw himself off the highway. There was no time to do anything more, so he lay perfectly still as three men on horseback rode past. Surely they would see Tre, stop, and blow his brains out. But no, they passed him by.

Once the riders were gone, Tre stood. Moving quietly, he left the verge of the road for the trees. Maybe more riders were on the way and maybe they weren’t, but he didn’t plan to hang around to find out.

The trees took Tre in, and he was looking for a place to hole up when he saw a flicker of light. A campfire, probably, and a dozen steps confirmed it. A crackling fire was visible in the middle of the clearing, and a large wagon could be seen in the background. A man was seated by the fire taking occasional sips from a mug.

Tre looked around. Where were the horsemen? Had they continued south or were they closing in? It doesn’t make any difference, Tre told himself. The first rule of survival is to mind your own business.

Tre heard a horse nicker and shouted, “Behind you!” That was stupid, of course. But a smart person would have been back in the shed.

To his credit, the would-be victim threw himself to the right as a shotgun blast blew his chair to splinters. Tre fired the .410’s right barrel at the spot where the bandit should be and heard him swear. What with the spread and the long range, it was likely that only a few pellets had found their target. But the man on the ground pulled a pistol and got off three shots. They went home and a body fell into the firelight.

Having revealed himself, Tre had gone from observer to target. He heard a branch break to his left, swiveled in that direction, and fired the left barrel. The bandit burst out of the brush just in time to take a full charge in the chest. This time the target was close enough to kill, and the man went down in a heap.

Tre was fumbling reloads into the shotgun when the man in the clearing shouted at him. “Climb a tree! Do it now!”

Climb a tree? What for? Tre was going to ignore the instruction when the man blew on a horn. The sound prompted a chorus of howls and sent a chill up Tre’s spine. He dumped the pack and was in the process of shedding the snowshoes when the first animals came ghosting through the trees on the far side of the clearing.

His heart was in his mouth as he climbed a ponDerosa and the dogs caught his scent. They surged his way, and it was only a matter of seconds before they were jumping high into the air, jaws snapping, as they tried to bring him down. Fortunately he was too high for them to reach.

The attack came to an end as a shrill whistle sounded and the dogs turned away. That was when he heard the man say, “Find them! Kill them!”

Tre remembered the third rider at that point and wondered where he was. The dogs began to sniff around the edges of the clearing. Then one of them produced a joyous bark and took off. The rest followed, howling as they ran.

“How many?” the man shouted.

“One left,” Tre replied. “He may be on horseback.”

“The dogs will get him,” the man said confidently. “Come on over.”

Tre dropped to the ground, paused to retrieve his empty brass, and slipped two fresh shells into the .410. Then it was time to pick up his gear and carry it to the fire. He was only a few feet away when a chorus of howls was heard, followed by the screams of a horse.

The man who stood waiting for him was dressed in a grubby business suit and a pair of high-heeled cowboy boots. The jacket was brushed back to expose a Colt .44 Magnum revolver. His right hand was dangling near the butt.

Both men turned to look as three shots were heard. They were followed by a scream. Tre thought it was from the horse but couldn’t be certain. “They’re after the horse’s legs,” the man explained. “Then, once they bring it down, they’ll kill the rider.”

Based on the man’s matter-of-fact statement, Tre got the impression that this wasn’t the first time the dogs had been sent to kill a horseman. “And then?”

“And then they’ll have dinner,” the man said. “My name’s Charlie. Charlie Winthrop. And you are?”

“Tre Ocho.”

“Glad to meet you, Tre. Real glad. The dogs were out hunting when you showed up. And a good thing too—since they would have torn into you otherwise. How did you wind up next to the clearing anyway?”

Tre knew what was going through the other man’s mind. Maybe Tre had been with the bandits and turned on them, or maybe he’d been planning an attack of his own. So Tre told him how he’d been overtaken on the highway, entered the woods, and happened across the clearing.

Charlie listened intently as he stared into Tre’s eyes. “Sounds like both of us were lucky. It could have gone differently. I figure they followed the wagon tracks down from Jackson. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Then why travel with a wagon?”

“’Cause I haul my medicine on it,” Charlie said. “Now, let’s tidy up. I reckon the body in the bushes belongs to you—and the other one is mine. Course, you winged him, so maybe you see things differently.”

Even though Tre knew that stripping bodies was necessary in order to survive, Charlie’s emotion-free pragmatism bothered him. His mother was right. Bit by bit, humans were losing their humanity. “No, he’s yours. Like you said, I winged him, but that’s all.”

Charlie nodded approvingly. “Good. Then we need to find the horses. There should be two of them, right?”

There it was again. A hint of doubt. If there were three horses, that would indicate that Tre was one of the bandits. He nodded. “Yes, two horses.”

So they parted company long enough to take what they wanted from the dead bodies. Tre wound up with an ancient lever-action .30-30, a handful of ammo, and a hand-forged Bowie knife. Not much of a haul. Charlie didn’t say what his pickings were like, but Tre figured they weren’t much better.

The moon was long gone, so Tre produced the flashlight he had taken from Bob. As expected, the horses were tethered a few hundred yards away next to the highway and according to Charlie were in bad shape. Tre didn’t know much about horses, having never owned one, but suspected that Charlie was laying the groundwork for an advantageous deal. That theory was confirmed as they led the animals into the firelit clearing. “Tell you what,” Charlie said. “I’ll buy your animal if you’re willing.”

Tre took notice of the way in which Charlie had already assumed ownership of one horse but let it pass. The problem with owning a horse was that he would be forced to feed and defend it. But he didn’t want to give the animal away either. “I don’t know,” he said doubtfully. “I could sling my pack on it.”

That stimulated a litany of complaints about horses. “The only reason I have them is because of the wagon,” Charlie explained. “Otherwise I’d be happy to walk.”

“You make some good points,” Tre allowed. “I’ll tell you what… I’ll sell my horse for one hundred and fifty rounds of .45 ammo plus a ride to Alpine.”

“A hundred and fifty?” Charlie exclaimed. “You’re out of your mind. I’ll give you fifty.”

“A hundred and that’s final. And the ride.”

Charlie looked at him. “How old are you anyway?”

“Twenty.”

Charlie laughed. “You’re full of it, son. But you have a deal.”

“I want the ammo up front.”

“Of course you do,” Charlie replied as he tied his horse to a tree. “I’ll be right back.”

As Charlie climbed up onto his wagon, Tre moved next to the fire. He hadn’t been there for more than a minute when the dogs returned. They came silently this time, flowing through the trees like water between stones. As they entered the circle of firelight, Tre saw that all of them had bloody muzzles. What had they been eating—the horse or the man?

Tre placed a hand on the .410 and began to back away. “Stay where you are,” Charlie ordered from up on the wagon. “Don’t look them in the eye.”

A big husky seemed to be in charge of the pack. He looked as if he might be part wolf and growled menacingly as he came forward. Charlie was on the ground by then. “That’s Blue,” he said. “I call him that because he has blue eyes. Hey, Blue, this is Tre… He’s a good human. Don’t buy a horse from him, though, ’cause you’ll come up short.”

Tre figured that was Charlie’s way of soothing the dog, and he realized something else as well. Had he wanted to, Charlie could have ordered the dogs to tear him apart. Then the old man could have kept all the loot. He looked at Charlie and saw him smile. “That’s right, son… You’re smart, but you missed something. But you don’t need to worry, ’cause I’m a man of my word.”

Blue sniffed Tre’s left hand, and he was shocked to discover that the animal came up to his waist. “Don’t touch his head,” Charlie advised. “Not till he gets to know you. But go ahead and pat him on the back.”

Tre followed the other man’s instructions to the letter and felt a sense of relief as Blue ambled away. But he was replaced by another dog, and another, until every member of the pack had his scent. Then they went to lie, sit, and nose around the fire. “There,” Charlie said as he gave Tre two boxes of ammo. “You’re a member of the family now… and truth is that it will be good to have someone riding shotgun. And I mean a real shotgun. Not the .410.”

That was how Tre came to know Charlie Winthrop and was able to ride all the way to Alpine. They traveled during the day because, as Charlie put it, “most of my customers are holed up at night, and I like to see ‘em coming.”

The product, which Charlie referred to as “medicine,” consisted of various plant extracts, secret flavorings, and a high alcohol content. About twenty percent, to be precise. The latter was what Charlie called “the active ingredient.” All made in a distillery “up north.”

Tre tried some of the brown liquid and spit it out. Charlie laughed. “It takes some getting used to. Plus Mother Hubbard’s Blood Tonic and Painkiller is meant for grown-ups.”

So with two horses pulling the wagon, two following behind, and more than a dozen dogs ranging along both sides of the highway, the four-wheeled conveyance rattled along. The weather was relatively good for once, and riding on the wagon made for a pleasant break, especially given the weight of Tre’s pack.

Every now and then they would come to a hamlet, and when they did, Charlie would pull over. If it was lunchtime they would eat. If it wasn’t they would start a fire and wait. During such interludes, Charlie would deploy a long length of chain and fasten most of the dogs to it. Blue and a couple of others were spared that indignity and allowed to roam free. It was an effective deterrent.

Then in ones, twos, and threes the customers would appear, seemingly out of nowhere. Typically they paid with .22s, .38s, or whatever they had. Sometimes they offered a dozen eggs, part of a smoked ham, or a hunk of jerky. And when they did, Charlie generally took them up on it, because that was how he got his food. And Tre, who was armed with a twelve gauge, stood guard.

It was during one such stop that Tre managed to trade the .30-30 for a loaf of freshly baked bread. He split it with Charlie and they ate it in a single sitting with generous dollops of strawberry jam from the old man’s larder. It was the best meal Tre had eaten in a long time.

Eventually the Palisades Reservoir appeared off to the right side of the road. Tre knew that it was the result of a large dam a few miles to the south. There was a power plant there, or the remains of one, since it had gone offline before he was born.

Sunlight sparkled on the water, and a scattering of fishing boats could be seen out on the reservoir as the wagon rattled along. Not long thereafter, the partnership with Charlie came to an end when the wagon crossed the bridge into Alpine and paused to pay a three-bullet toll. Unlike so many places Tre had seen, Alpine could still claim an identity thanks to the presence of the palisade-style fort the citizens had built there. It was big enough to house all the locals in an emergency, strong enough to withstand small-arms fire, and surrounded by all sorts of obstacles. That was the good news. The bad news was that residents had to join the militia, had to tithe a month’s labor each year, and were beholden to Buck Benton. He was the son of Brett Benton, who was widely credited with fortifying the town thirty years earlier, all of which explained why Tre hadn’t applied for citizenship. He liked being free even if freedom came with a lot of risks.

All the dogs were chained up in accordance with Alpine’s rules, and they weren’t happy about it as the two men parted company. “You could come to work for me,” Charlie offered as Tre shouldered his pack. “Once I sell out, I’ll head north and take two months off. You could do the same.”

It was a generous offer, but Tre was looking forward to going home. “Thanks, but no thanks. Take care, Charlie. You’re okay for an old man.”

Charlie grinned. “And you’re okay for a fifteen-year-old punk.” Both laughed.

Tre turned his back and made his way down the busy street. He saw people bringing their produce into town—rarely more than a basket or two. Just what they could grow in a makeshift hothouse. There were predators too. They stood alone or in small groups, scanning those who passed by. Looking for what? A wealthy target? A potential client? Tre was careful to give them a wide berth.

Girls could be seen as well, always with someone else, because it would be dangerous to venture out alone. And Tre couldn’t help but wonder about them, even though he knew they were forever out of reach. The mere thought of trying to talk to such a creature was terrifying.

Tre followed old Highway 89 out of town and headed south. His plan was to pass through the hamlet of Freedom and follow 34 into Idaho. His home, which he called the Tangle, was a few miles south of Wayan, a community in name only. The hike would take the better part of two days. But thanks to the mild weather, Tre could strap the snowshoes to his pack, and that allowed him to move more freely.

A good deal of commerce flowed through Star Valley, so Tre saw people coming and going. Some rode horses, but most were on foot, and it was necessary to keep an eye on them lest he fall victim to a quick stab and grab. To that end, Tre was careful to check his back trail frequently—and to leave the highway when people threatened to overtake him. The key was to wait until a curve hid him from view. Then he would make for a grove of trees and stay there until the other travelers passed him.

Even with such interruptions, Tre made good progress and passed through Freedom just before sunset. There was a fortified inn, but he had no desire to sleep on a bedbug-infested mattress so he passed it by. Tre had traveled the route many times and usually spent the night at the edge of a fallow field not far from a small stream. A thicket of trees helped screen him from the highway and made a good windbreak.

It took less than fifteen minutes to start a fire, put a can of stew on to heat, and pitch his tent. After a hot dinner, it was time to clean up, brush his teeth, and hit the sack. The rain began with a gentle tap, tap, tap, and soon escalated into a gentle roar. And that was fine with Tre, since foul weather was likely to keep the bad guys at home. So with one hand on the .410 he drifted off to sleep.

After a relatively good night’s rest, meaning one in which he allowed himself to sleep two hours at a time, Tre rose to discover that the sun was out. It went a long way toward lifting his spirits as he rekindled the fire, boiled a large quantity of oatmeal, and sprinkled some of Bob’s brown sugar on it.

Once breakfast was over, Tre broke camp and began the last leg of his journey. Highway 34 ran between the Caribou and Webster mountain ranges. Some of the hillsides were bare, while others were forested. The road snaked back and forth between them as it crossed rivers, curved around lakes, and led him steadily upward. But the scenery was gorgeous and even the weight of Tre’s pack couldn’t stop him from enjoying it.

He walked all day, pausing only for lunch before starting downhill. He saw very few people, only one of whom was worth taking note of. He was riding a large tricycle with a cargo area in back, and that was intriguing. Tre figured he could build one, and unlike a horse, it wouldn’t have to be fed! There was a downside, however, as such a vehicle could attract the wrong sort of attention.

Finally, just short of Wayan, Tre turned onto a dirt track that led south. Five minutes later he left the path for a copse of trees. Tre was pretty confident that he hadn’t been followed but forced himself to check anyway.

After watching the area for fifteen minutes, he left the hiding spot and returned to the path. It led through an old homestead, past an empty-eyed house, and onto a trail so faint it was difficult to tell that it had once been a driveway. Then he veered off the trail in order to climb a lightly treed slope. A couple of scrawny pines and a clutch of boulders marked the point where he could look down on his home.

He ‘d come across the property not long after his mother’s death and decided to camp there. It had been a horse farm once, with a house, barn, and corral, but at some point the house caught fire and burned to the ground. Then, over the intervening years, blackberry vines grew up around the ruins to create a thick tangle.

If it hadn’t been for the comings and goings of a feral cat, Tre would never have thought to look farther. But the animal clearly had a home inside the briar patch, which raised the possibility that there were hidden nooks and crannies within the ruins, places that might be home to items he could use or trade.

After battling his way into the center of the stickers, and suffering a dozen scratches in the process, Tre found charred wood, a concrete foundation, and a set of rubble-strewn stairs that led down into a generously proportioned basement. Tre saw the possibilities right away and went to work perfecting his new home that very afternoon.

Now, as he scanned the site with the Nikon binoculars, Tre was searching for any sign that his sanctuary had been compromised—a tendril of smoke, boot prints on a patch of snow, or a newly cut path through the stickers, any of which could spell trouble. But no, as far as Tre could tell, everything was exactly as he had left it.

The next step was to circle wide, retrieve the rubber boots hidden upstream from the Tangle, and walk down the creek, a strategy calculated to avoid footprints and the possibility of a new trail—the sort of wear pattern that could lead bandits straight to his hidey-hole.

Calf-deep water splashed away from his boots as Tre made his way downstream and entered a shallow pool. There had been some vegetation on the north bank but Tre had planted more to camouflage the main entrance, which consisted of a sturdy door that could be barred from within. Beyond that was a carefully engineered tunnel reinforced with lumber scavenged from the remains of the tumbledown barn. It slanted up to a hole in the concrete floor. After closing the door behind him, Tre shoved the pack uphill into the room above.

It was pitch-black inside, so Tre lit a match and went around the room lighting candles. They were the cheapest, most dependable source of light he had. He had lanterns too, but they required fuel that was not only expensive, but heavy. A solar panel was hidden up in the tangle above, but it was difficult for sunlight to reach it, and when it did, only a fraction of what went in could be retrieved from the system’s ancient battery.

Once all the candles were aglow, the room was suffused with a soft flickering glow and the shadows were forced back to reveal Tre’s one-room world. There was storage in the back, a bed against one wall, and a working commode opposite that. The toilet had been there from the beginning and emptied into an underground septic tank.

A small Jøtul wood-burning stove was located in one corner of the space, with a reading nook on one side and the kitchen counter on the other. It featured a sink that Tre could fill with water pumped up from the creek. That drained into a five-gallon bucket that supplied the water he used to flush the toilet.

Tre heard a noise followed by a strident meow as a sleek-looking cat slipped into the room via a two-by-four ramp constructed for his convenience. He was black with white markings, and very independent. “Hey, Ninja,” Tre said. “Did you miss me? No, of course you didn’t. I brought you a present, though… It’s from a man named Bob.”

Ninja was the one who had unintentionally revealed the basement to Tre and, though entirely self-sufficient, continued to sleep there and kept the space free of pests. His big yellow eyes watched Tre as he opened the pack and produced a can of condensed milk. Once the treat had been poured into a bowl, Ninja went over to check it out. Three seconds later he was lapping away. Tre smiled. It was good to be home.

After a leisurely evening and an uninterrupted night of sleep, Tre arose ready to do what he enjoyed almost as much as reading, and that was building things, especially useful things, like the small hydro-generator described on page 63 of the book 101 Science Projects. If Tre could build one and install the turbine in the creek, he could power some electric lights, and that would replace the need to use candles, lanterns, and the iffy solar power system.

So Tre took the book back to his neatly organized storage area and began to run through the parts list. He was going to need some cardboard to cut templates from, copper wire for coils, eight spoons, which would serve as turbine blades, something to make a rotor out of, a plastic tank similar to the old weed sprayer he had, and four strong magnets. And that was where he came up short. Tre had some kitchen cabinet magnets but knew they wouldn’t be strong enough for the job. What to do?

The question continued to dog Tre after he put the book aside. He had a strong desire to go out and find the magnets, but every trip entailed risk, and the more trips he made, the more likely it was that something would go wrong.

Tre thought about it as he did his chores, dreamed about it that night, and awoke with the decision made. He would make the two-day trip to Afton. That was the town most likely to have what he needed—then he’d come straight back. The trip would take four days in all. To speed him on his way and reduce the chances of being robbed, he would wear his most ragged clothing and carry a minimum of gear.

After a quick breakfast and some careful preparations, Tre said good-bye to Ninja and left. Now it was time to walk upstream, hide the rubber boots, and circle around to a second viewpoint, where he spent ten minutes scanning the surrounding area before heading for the highway. He was dressed in an old parka over a hoodie and raggedy jeans, the knapsack was half the size of the pack he’d carried on the trip to Jackson, and his weapons consisted of the Bowie knife he had taken off the dead bandit and a six-foot-long metal tube. It was decorated with three leather sleeves, string windings, and touches of paint.

It was cold, the snow was crunchy, and Tre had the highway to himself as he walked east. He saw people as the day wore on, but not very many, and none of them showed any interest in the scarecrow with the tiny pack and the metal pole.

Rather than camp outside Freedom as he had before, Tre elected to turn south toward Afton. The night was spent in the mummy bag curled up in the trunk of a rusty Cadillac. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal cooked over a can of Sterno. Then it was off to Afton.

There was little to no traffic on Highway 89 at first, but by midmorning Tre was part of a parade that consisted of hikers, people on horseback, and donkey-drawn carts. About half were going south as he was, and the others were headed north, having already been to Afton.

Tre didn’t like having people all around him, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Besides, he told himself, there’s safety in numbers. There were no guarantees, but bandits were less likely to attack him in such a situation, since they had no way to know how the other travelers would respond. They might decide to mind their own business or they might open fire on the thieves. Very few bandits wanted to take that chance.

At about three p.m., Tre saw the haze of smoke that marked Afton in the distance and was soon lost in the mob of people who were lined up to pass through the town’s northern checkpoint. It consisted of two buildings: one for those who wanted to enter the city and one for those who were leaving.

There was no way to circumvent the so-called customs stations because of the six-foot-tall barbed-wire fence that ran all away around Afton. And the three-story watchtowers that guarded each corner of the perimeter made it impossible to climb the fence without being spotted. The fence had a secondary purpose as well, and that was to slow invaders down in the case of an all-out attack and give the citizens more time to respond.

Tre understood the reason for the security measures but felt a rising sense of tension as he shuffled forward—not because of a specific threat, but because the citizens of Afton had all the power, and once he entered their town he would be subject to their rules, all of which were set up to benefit them.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, it was Tre’s turn to enter the pedestrian pass-through, where a pair of guards blocked the way. There was a window on the right, and Tre turned to face it. The man behind the bars was going bald, had a pair of reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, and looked bored. “Are you carrying firearms? If so, slide them through the hole, butt first, and I’ll check them for you.”

Tre had been through the process before and understood the necessity. The citizens of Afton were willing to let visitors carry knives and clubs, but they weren’t allowed to have guns—and for good reason. Had it been otherwise, fifty bandits could have entered Afton separately, come together, and taken control.

“No, sir. I don’t have any firearms.”

“Can you read?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Check the blackboard, choose a form of payment, and push it through the opening.”

Tre looked at the chalkboard, where all the possible combinations were written out, and chose to pay the city’s admission tax with a .410 shotgun shell and two .45-caliber slugs. The clerk accepted them, chose to weigh the shotgun shell, and pointed to a bottle of ink to Tre’s right. “Stick your right index finger in the bottle.”

Tre did as he was told. When he pulled his finger out, it was black. “Can’t hardly tell the difference,” the clerk said. “We need white ink for your kind.”

The guards had heard the joke before but laughed anyway as Tre struggled to control the anger that boiled up inside. He forced himself to remain silent as he turned left. Both guards were dressed western-style and armed with pistols. “Pass the pole to me,” the taller one ordered, and Tre had no choice but to comply.

“Lock your hands behind your neck,” the other cowboy said, “and spread your feet.”

As the short man gave Tre a professional pat down, his partner was busy examining the pole. “It ain’t much,” he said, “but I guess you could whack someone with it.”

Tre had a book called Stick Fighting: Techniques of Self-Defense and had been studying the contents for more than a year. Could he beat the cowboy to death? Yes, he thought he could, even though he had yet to use his skills. “Yes, sir,” Tre replied. “I use it to keep the dogs off me.”

Feral dogs were everywhere and the guard nodded. “Makes sense, but get a gun when you can.”

“He’s clean,” the short guard said. “Next.”

Tre felt a sense of relief as he left the customs station and entered Afton. Most of the towns Tre had been to were considerably smaller than they had been before the war, but Afton was an exception. Thanks to its location and to decisions made by its citizens, the community was not only larger but relatively prosperous. As Tre walked the streets, he saw signs advertising a candle maker, a dentist, a gunsmith, a tailor, a barber, a blacksmith, and more. But what he didn’t see was a grocery store.

Due to climate change, it was very difficult to grow crops anywhere except inside the huge greenhouses owned by a class of people called food lords. And that was why some of Afton’s citizens were fat. They could afford to buy what thousands of other people had to steal or endure slavery to obtain, the latter being something that his mother refused to consider. “All of us are going to die,” she liked to say, “but while we’re here, you and I are going to live free.”

Important though food was, Tre was after a set of magnets, and he knew where to find them. The Geek Shop was located on a side street and specialized in selling reconditioned objects brought in by scroungers or recovered from one of the garbage mines.

Tre felt a visceral sense of excitement as he entered the store and looked around. The walls were obscured by shelves loaded with fantastical prewar machines. Toasters, hair dryers, music players, fans, tools, toys, and countless other objects all battled for Tre’s attention. So the tendency was to linger. But Tre wanted to begin the trip home as soon as possible, so he went straight to the back counter, waited for Tommy to finish waiting on another customer, and made his request. “I’m looking for some magnets. Strong ones.”

Tommy was thirtysomething and had beady eyes, a five o’clock shadow, and stringy hair. “You again.”

“You remember me?”

“You’re the only kid who buys things here.”

“I’m not a kid.”

“Sure. What are you building?”

Tre looked away. It was difficult for him to meet a stranger’s eyes, but he forced himself to turn his head back. “A small hydroelectric generator.”

Tommy’s face lit up. “Sweet! How many magnets do you need?”

“Four.”

“Wait here.” The proprietor was back a couple of minutes later with four magnets and a piece of steel. “Here you go… Test ‘em.”

Tre did. The magnets were so strong it was difficult to pry them off the strip of metal. “I’ll take them. How much?”

“Half a box of .45s or the equivalent thereof.”

The price was steep—very steep—but if Tre wanted to build the generator, he had no choice. And Tommy knew that. “How ‘bout fifteen .45s, ten .22s, and a couple of .410s?”

That was a slight discount, but not much of one. Tommy smiled. “Sure.”

Tre took a leather pouch out of an inner pocket and counted the ammo onto the counter. “Okay,” Tommy said as he accepted the payment. “Good luck with the generator.”

Tre thanked him and left. If anything, the streets were more crowded now, and the presence of so many people brought out street vendors, con men, and pickpockets. As Tre made for the north exit, he ran into a crowd. Judging from all the commotion up ahead, some sort of street performance was under way, and Tre hoped to catch a glimpse of it as he passed by.

But after pushing his way to the front of the crowd, Tre found himself looking at something very different from what he had expected. There, within a circle of bystanders, was a ragged-looking youth. A group of toughs had ropes on the girl and were jerking her back and forth. She was speaking gibberish and drooling. The crowd laughed as she fell, and one of the hooligans kicked her.

Mind your own business, the voice in Tre’s head told him. It isn’t your problem. Tre knew that was true, just as he knew he was going to take action anyway and that doing so would have negative consequences.

He said, “Excuse me,” to the people in front of him and pushed between them. Then he was there, standing inside the circle, the staff held in both hands. He had to shout in order to be heard. “Let her go.”

Suddenly the crowd noise all but disappeared as the youth in the center of the ring continued to gibber and managed to free herself from the rope. A dark-haired youth frowned as if unable to believe what he had heard. “What did you say?”

All eyes that weren’t already on Tre went to him. “I said let her go.”

“Or?”

“Or you’ll regret it.”

The dark-haired tough smiled. Here was a gift, another person to dominate, and another opportunity to instill fear. He pointed to a couple of toadies. “Miller, Baker, take him.”

As the two toadies came rushing toward him, Tre brought the staff up across his chest. The one named Miller had long hair, a big jaw, and a powerful body. Had he been able to get his gigantic paws on Tre, the fight would have been over in no time. But a quick blow from the right end of the staff broke all his teeth and sent him reeling away with both hands clutching a bloody mouth.

Meanwhile, the other end of the metal tube dipped, swiveled, and was waiting for Baker when he ran into it. He uttered a gasp of pain, grabbed his crotch, and fell to his knees.

Like all crowds, this one was fickle. As the bystanders roared their approval, Tre saw a combination of shock and anger on the gang leader’s face. And he saw something else as well. The youth with the dark hair was wearing a pistol in a cross-draw holster. That meant he was a citizen and would have the local authorities on his side. “Okay,” the city boy said, “rope him.”

Tre saw the loop of rope coming, sidestepped it, and twisted both halves of the rod in opposite directions. The center sleeve fell away and the staff was transformed into a pair of fighting sticks. Tre held them at the ready as he stepped forward. A tough rushed him, took a blow to the head, and fell. A second later, one of the gang members landed on Tre’s back and was trying to choke him when both rods struck his head. The weight fell away.

Then, as if in slow motion, Tre saw the gang leader go for his gun. He heard someone scream and sensed that people were trying to get clear of the area behind him, fearful that they would catch a bullet. The city boy’s decision to use the pistol left Tre with no choice but to bring the tubes up, press the buttons hidden beneath the remaining sleeves, and fire both weapons.

The three-foot-long gun barrels were loaded with .410 shotgun shells, and at close range the effect was devastating. His opponent’s face disappeared in a spray of bone and blood.

A second later Tre felt something hit his head, a hole seemed to open under his feet, and darkness pulled him down. The fight was over.

Chapter Five

South of Afton, Wyoming, USA

The sky was the color of old pewter as Luther Voss climbed the stairs that led up to the crudely made gallows and looked out over the slum called Shantytown, a tawdry settlement that abutted the southernmost portion of his land—”his land” being defined as whatever real estate Voss could take and hold. Because in post apocalyptic America there were no elected governments, legal documents, or courts to enforce them. Justice, as the dead thief had learned, was defined by the people with the most guns. The rope made a creaking sound as a cold wind pushed against the body. “Cut him down,” Voss ordered, and stood to one side.

The food lord’s second in command was a man named Hawkins. Like all the members of Voss’s private army, Hawkins was dressed cowboy-style in a long duster, jeans, and high-heeled boots. His coat was open so that he could access the weapons he wore, one of which was a very sharp knife. It made short work of the rope, and there was a thump as the body landed on the wooden platform.

With that out of the way, Voss stepped forward. A breeze caught his long, mostly brown hair and whipped it around. He could feel the wind pressing against his back and see the way it ripped and tore at the fragile shacks arrayed in front of him. Having started at the south end of the settlement, his “boys,” as Voss referred to them, had driven hundreds of squatters into the area in front of the gallows.

As Voss looked down at them, he saw haunted eyes, drawn faces, and ragged clothes. There were children too. Most were smaller than they should have been, had runny noses, or were clearly ill. Malnutrition wasn’t the only enemy in Shantytown. There hadn’t been any inoculations in more than a generation, and sanitation was next to nonexistent. That meant the maze of shacks was a breeding ground for flu, cholera, and dysentery. Voss raised a bullhorn and turned it on. “I won’t say good morning because it sure as hell isn’t.” It was a joke, but none of the squatters laughed. They stared up at Voss with hollow eyes.

“All right,” Voss said, “here’s the deal. My name is Luther Voss. I own the farms located to the north of this settlement and I need more land. That’s why you have to leave. Once you’re gone, my boys will burn these shacks to the ground. So don’t come back.”

The crowd had been silent up to that point, but now they began to react. There was a rumble of protest as a man with a full beard stepped forward. He was dressed in filthy overalls and armed with a shotgun. “He’s right where we want him!” the man exclaimed loudly. “Let’s hang the bastard.”

There was a flash of movement followed by a loud bang as Hawkins drew a pistol and shot the man in the forehead. He fell over backward and mud splashed as he hit. A woman and two children came forward to sob over the body. “Sorry about that,” Voss said mildly, “but he was stupid. Look at the wagons located to either side of the platform.”

The squatters looked. What they saw were tarps, which when whipped aside revealed crew-served machine guns—both aimed at them. “That’s right,” Voss said. “You can swarm the platform, but most of you will die. And for what? A tar-paper shack? And a muddy grave? That would be stupid. So rather than commit suicide, come to work for me.”

The crowd was silent and Voss could see the uncertainty on many of their faces. “Think about it,” Voss continued. “If you come to work for me, you will receive new clothes, a basic set of household items, and an apartment in a building that has electricity and running water. You will also receive medical care and a better life for your children.

“In return,” Voss continued, “you will help me grow food. I will sell most of it, but there will be plenty left over for you and for your families. And, as a result of your efforts, other people will have more to eat as well, something you can feel good about when you put your head down at night.”

Voss scanned the faces in front of him. He had them, or a lot of them at any rate, and it was time to close the sale. “You have thirty minutes in which to gather your belongings and leave. Those of you who want to work for me should line up on the highway for a two-mile walk to Farm 3. The rest of you can go where you will so long as it isn’t on my land. Any attempt to interfere with my employees will be met with deadly force. That will be all.”

Having finished his presentation, Voss jumped to the ground. His horse, a gigantic mount named Odin, stood patiently while Voss put a foot in a stirrup and swung up into the saddle. Then, with Hawkins and two mercenaries to guard him, Voss rode out into the slum.

The crowd had dispersed by then, and with only half an hour to work with, the residents of Shantytown were rushing to rescue their meager possessions before the entire community went up in flames. As Odin carried Voss through muddy streets, he was appalled by the squalid conditions. Most of the homes were little more than crude huts, but each had a small garden. Pitiful things, really… fenced off with whatever scraps of wood and wire the owners had been able to scavenge. Feces, offal, and garbage lay everywhere. Here, he thought, is proof of how base they are. If they had any initiative, if they were willing to work, they could live as I do. Instead they choose to dwell here like pigs in a sty.

Forty mounted mercenaries had gathered at the north end of the shantytown by that time. The torches they held shivered as a gust of wind attacked them, but they continued to burn and sent tendrils of smoke up into the cold air. Voss pulled Odin to a halt and took a look at his Rolex self-winding watch. Then, as the final seconds ticked away, he raised a gloved hand. As it came down, heavily burdened men and women were still scurrying for the highway with children, dogs, and farm animals in tow. Later, when they entered the induction center, their pets would be taken away to be slaughtered, and the goats, pigs, and chickens would be quarantined. Then, after being inspected for disease, they would go into the food supply. But there was no point in telling the squatters that ahead of time.

At Voss’s signal, the riders spurred their horses into the maze. As they passed each dwelling, they leaned in to touch it, like priests blessing the homes, but with fire rather than holy water. Most went up in flames.

Not all the huts surrendered so easily, however. Some were stubborn and refused to catch fire. Whenever that occurred, a mercenary would light a firebomb and toss it through an opening, resulting in a splash of fire. It rarely took two.

Confident that the reclamation project was on track, Voss led his bodyguards north past the long line of people who were about to become his responsibility. Was this the way it felt to be a nobleman back in the Middle Ages? Yes, Voss thought it was, and remembered the saying “What’s old is new again.” Not only new, but to his mind exhilarating, because while much had been lost in the wake of the war, a great deal had been gained, primary among which was personal freedom. Voss smiled, urged Odin to a gallop, and took pleasure in the feel of it. The year was 2066. But it could have been 1266. And that was fine with him.

The fortified manor house sat atop a hill and could be seen from the highway. That was no accident. Hills were easier to defend, and each passerby would not only see it, but also think of him. A twisting, turning road led up through beautifully landscaped slopes past artfully disguised machine-gun emplacements to a carefully groomed courtyard where uniformed slaves were waiting to receive him.

It was important to maintain the right mix of workers and slaves. The advantage to using hired help was that they had a reason to guard the status quo, to think of ways to improve things, and to come up with innovations. But slaves could produce food for less and, so long as they existed, gave the workers a reason to feel superior, all of which contributed to social stability and therefore to profits.

Voss slid to the ground and gave the reins to a slave boy, knowing that the horse would be well taken care of. Spurs rattled as Voss crossed the well-packed gravel to the house. It consisted of a conical watchtower sited next to a two-story house with a multiplicity of chimneys and staggered roofs. The two-foot-thick walls were made of stone. They were pierced by windows and rifle slits, which were currently plugged against the cold.

A massive metal-strapped door swung open before Voss could touch it. Once inside the huge entry hall, Voss went to sit on one of two throne-like chairs that were positioned to either side of a welcoming fireplace. A house slave hurried to remove his filthy boots while a second gave him a mug of coffee—a fantastically expensive brew derived from Mexican beans brought north by caravan. It was hot, slightly sweetened with sugar made from his own sugar beets, and diluted with a dollop of cream produced by a Voss-owned dairy farm.

No sooner was the ritual completed than a small formally dressed man appeared. He had slicked-down hair, a pair of thick glasses, and a stern demeanor. His name was Elmer Trenton and he was many things, including Voss’s personal secretary, confidant, and adviser. “There you are,” Trenton said, exhibiting none of the deference that most people did. “Charlie Winthrop is waiting in your study.”

“Excellent,” Voss replied, as a footman slid some handmade moccasins onto his feet. “It’s about time. Let’s see what the rascal has to say.”

Voss led Trenton into the wood-paneled study. One wall was taken up with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Another was dedicated to a large fireplace, and a bay window looked southwest across tidy slopes to the highway below. Smoke could be seen in the distance as riders escorted a long line of men, women, and children north. Winthrop was seated next to the huge desk. He stood as Voss entered the room. “It’s good to see you,” Voss said as he shook the other man’s hand. “How’s Blue?”

“Ornery as ever.”

“Good. Would you like a cigar?”

Winthrop eyed the box greedily. “Don’t mind if I do.”

“Take a fistful,” Voss said. “They’re from an island called Cuba. Each one of them is worth a box of .45s.”

Winthrop hurried to accept the invitation, and after sticking four cigars in an inside pocket, bit the end off a fifth and spit it onto the floor. Voss smiled indulgently as he leaned forward to provide Winthrop with a light. Once the cigar was drawing properly, Voss smiled. “So, Charlie, what have you got for me?“

“Well,” Charlie began, “I went down past Kemmerer just like you told me to. The good news is that outside of the usual patrols, I didn’t see anything that could be described as a major troop movement.”

Voss made a steeple with his fingers. “And the bad news?”

Charlie released a stream of pungent blue-black smoke. “The bad news is that there’s a lot of territory I didn’t see. Couldn’t see without getting my ass shot off. Hashi has established a number of no-go zones since the last time I was down that way. And the locals tell me that her people don’t take prisoners.”

Voss considered that. Haya Hashi was a tech lord by virtue of the fact that she controlled the wind turbines located outside Evanston, Wyoming. And since Voss’s solar farms weren’t able to produce enough electricity to meet his needs, he was forced to buy power from Hashi—and it was expensive. Up to twenty percent of the nonperishable food Voss Enterprises produced was shipped south each month, and the bandits knew that. So although his mercenaries were able to protect most of the caravans most of the time, there were losses—losses he had to make up.

That was bad enough, but six days earlier, an emissary had arrived carrying a letter from Hashi. It was replete with all sorts of flowery crap, but the so-what was clear. The bitch was raising her prices again. That left Voss with two choices. Pay, or invade Hashi’s wind-generated empire and take over. He preferred the second alternative and had prepared for it. But what if the price increase was part of an elaborate plan to lure him out of the Star Valley? What if Hashi wanted war—and wanted to fight it on her ground? Such was the dilemma that faced him. “Okay,” Voss said, “there were places you couldn’t go—and things you couldn’t see. But what’s your guess? Is Hashi preparing for war?”

Charlie took in some smoke, held it for a second or two, and blew a perfect ring. The halo lost its shape before it could reach Voss. “I’d rather not guess. But if I have to, I’d say it’s business as usual down in Hashi-land. Rumor has it that she’s butt deep in an effort to construct more wind machines.”

“That could explain why she raised her prices,” Trenton said, speaking for the first time. He was standing in front of the fireplace with both hands behind his back.

Voss nodded. Hashi would need gold for something like that—gold she could bring in by selling some of the food he sent her. “Thank you, Charlie. Stay in touch. Trenton will take care of your pay.”

Winthrop had been dismissed and knew it. He rose and said, “Thank you, Mr. Voss,” and Trenton led him out into the hall. A cloud of smoke remained behind as the door closed after them. Snow had begun to fall beyond the window. An omen, perhaps? And, if so, what did it mean? There was one person who might know, but she hated him. Voss smiled. Dinner would be interesting.

Voss had a lot to do, not the least of which was to make sure that his mercenaries were ready to leave on six hours’ notice. And that was a complicated matter because they were mercenaries—and mercenaries couldn’t be trusted. Making the situation even more complex was the fact that the mercenaries were paid with the very thing required to fight, and that was ammunition. Give them too little and a critical battle could be lost. Issue too much and they would take their riches and run. But by insisting that that his soldiers take wives, he could hold their families hostage. It was an effective policy for the most part, but only if he enforced the rules.

So, having lost a “runner” the week before, he was forced to visit the merc compound located north of his home, wait for the troops to be assembled, and watch while the deserter’s family was put to death. Not a pleasant way to spend the afternoon and one that put him in a foul mood.

It was getting dark and the snow was falling more thickly by the time Voss and his bodyguards returned to the manor. Once Odin had been taken away, Voss entered the house and went up to his quarters. The hot shower felt wonderful and went a long way toward restoring his spirits. After donning a white shirt, black trousers, and a matching jacket, he went down to dinner.

The door to the wood-paneled dining room was open, candles glowed, and the twelve-person table was set for two. Sara Silverton was already there. She had shoulder-length brown hair, large luminous eyes, and a heart-shaped face. The dress she wore was decorated with hundreds of hand-sewn beads and glittered as she stood, a sign of respect she was reluctant to give but Voss insisted on. He smiled. “Good evening, Sara. You look beautiful.”

Sara made a face. “I wish it were otherwise. Then someone else could decorate your dining room.”

“Ah, but I value more than your looks.”

A slave held the chair positioned at the head of the table and Voss sat on it. That was the cue for a second slave to seat Sara—and there was no mistaking the rattle of chains as he did so. The shackles had been added in the wake of her latest escape attempt. “So,” Voss said as the wine was poured. “How was your day?”

“Like every other day. Boring.”

Voss shrugged. “It doesn’t have to be that way. You could swear your allegiance to me.”

Her eyes narrowed. “And you would believe that?”

Sara never told Voss what he wanted to hear, and that was part of the attraction. He took a sip of wine. “No, of course not.”

“So we’re back to where we started.”

“I’m afraid so.”

Voss broke the ensuing silence. “A man came to visit me today.”

“So?”

“So he says that Hashi is building more wind turbines—and that’s why she raised her prices.”

Sara’s eyes flashed. “He’s wrong.”

“In what way?”

“She wants everything you have.”

Voss eyed his prisoner from the other end of the table. “And how do you feel about that?”

“I’m all for it. Maybe she will free me.”

Voss considered that. “I don’t think so. Hashi would use you as I do.”

Sara shrugged. “Perhaps… The outcome is unclear.”

“And if I invade her territory? What then?”

Sara’s eyes took on the faraway look he’d seen many times before. Sara was a psychic, or claimed to be, although he wasn’t sure what to believe. Maybe she was and maybe she wasn’t. But whatever the source, the advice she gave him was right more often than it was wrong. And that gave him an edge—a small edge, but an edge nevertheless. “If you invade you’ll be sorry,” Sara said. “I see bodies, hundreds of them, all killed by Hashi.”

“Is my corpse among them?”

“No,” Sara said and smiled.

Was she telling the truth? Or lying in hopes that he would be killed? That was part of the game they played. “I should shoot you.”

“I would welcome that.”

“Then I won’t.”

“I know.”

Voss laughed, and as he looked the length of the table at Sara, he saw what might have been the beginnings of a smile tug at the corners of her mouth. The salad arrived and they ate in silence. It was better than dining alone.

The mercenaries departed at dawn. There were a thousand of them, all riding horses, and all dressed cowboy-style. There were ten companies of one hundred men, each having a boss and a flag to rally to. They rode in a column of twos with dusters over multiple layers of clothing and hats pulled low. The snow had stopped during the night, but it was cold, and the entire formation was enveloped by a fog of lung-warmed air. The wagons came next. There were ten of them, all heavily loaded with tents, tools, food, ammo, medical supplies, and slaves. It took a lot of resources to start a war. They rattled, creaked, and squealed.

Voss and his bodyguards rode at the front. That was something Voss insisted on because he knew the mercs were more likely to put their hearts into a fight if they could see that he was taking the same chances they did.

But appearances were deceiving. In spite of Voss’s determination to look brave, he was terrified, not because of the possibility that he would be killed—he couldn’t conceive of that—but because he might fail. Just like Sara said he would. But, Voss reminded himself, remember what Charlie said. He thinks Hashi is busy building wind turbines.

The thought made him feel better, as did the news a scout radioed back half an hour later. The way was clear. There were no tracks in the snow, no unusual radio traffic, and no suspicious riders in the distance. Nor should there be that close to Afton. But Kemmerer, which lay a hundred miles to the south, was at the northern boundary of what Hashi considered to be her territory. So Voss expected to make contact by the time he and his mercenaries arrived there.

Except for a brief appearance shortly after noon, the sun was hidden behind the clouds for the rest of the day. And by the time the column pulled into a hamlet called Border Junction, Voss was exhausted. But rather than let that show, he forced himself to make the rounds and even went so far as to help erect a tent, disperse dollops of whiskey from the flasks he kept in his pockets, and chat with the mercs he knew. Small things, really… but moments that would be magnified in the telling and would help to keep spirits up.

Then, dead tired, Voss retreated to the tent that slaves had set up for him. Unlike all the rest, it was equipped with a small wood-burning stove, carpets, and camp furniture. Voss ate a bowl of piping-hot stew as Hawkins delivered a report. He struggled to say all the right things in response, then went to bed a few minutes later. The interior of his sleeping bag was already warm thanks to a couple of hot water bottles, and it wasn’t long before sleep carried him away.

It took two hours to break camp in the morning and it was all Voss could do to remain aloof. He was, as always, filled with a seething impatience. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the column set off.

Now, conscious of the fact that Hashi’s territory lay only fifty miles to the south, Voss sent half a company of horsemen ahead to scout the way. Voss didn’t expect to make contact with the enemy so soon but knew such a thing was possible.

But beyond routine encounters with a few startled travelers, the scouts found nothing other than vast tracts of untouched snow, the bite of the relentless wind, and an empty horizon. Surely they would make contact soon. The suspense was nerve-wracking, but comforting too, because with each passing mile Voss became increasingly convinced that Charlie was right. Hashi’s attention was focused elsewhere.

That thought helped Voss endure the next eight hours as the column passed through Cokeville and turned east at the hamlet of Sage. It was flat country interrupted by low-lying ridges, perfect for cavalry. But it was a cold, heartless place, and Voss felt lost in it.

Finally, as the sky began to darken, they arrived in what was once the town of Kemmerer. It had been home to a couple thousand people sixty years earlier. But that was back before the nuclear exchange, sudden climate change, and the second civil war. There had been significant quantities of fuel back then, and a tank battle had been fought in Kemmerer. The hulks of burned-out machines stood as mute testimonials to a period when various states and combinations of states battled one another and ultimately reduced the United States of America to rubble. And now, more than fifty years later, people were fighting over the rubble.

As the animals were cared for and the tents went up, Voss made the rounds. The mercs weren’t likely to complain to his face, but Voss could tell that morale was still high, and he did what he could to keep it that way. Then he called the bosses into his tent, where he served up cigars and whiskey before getting down to business. A map had been spread out on a sheet of wood supported by two sawhorses. A cloud of blue-black smoke floated above their heads as Voss tapped the name Kemmerer with a grubby index finger. “We’re here, and Hashi’s headquarters are down here, in Evanston. So here’s the plan. Hawkins will take most of our men down Highway 189. At some point Hashi will be forced to respond. That’s when we kick her butt or, failing that, keep most of her people busy while I lead a company of men around to attack her left flank. If we can break through, we’ll turn in on her and attack from behind. Then, having hung her from one of her own windmills, we’ll take control of the power distribution grid. With that in our hands, it will be easy to capture individual wind turbines. If you have questions, speak up.”

The bosses had questions, but they were tactical rather than strategic. None of them were going to say something like, “Hey, Mr. Voss, why start a war?” Not while he could kill their families.

Once all the issues had been resolved and the mercenaries were gone, Voss could hit the sack. His bed was warm, but it was hard to fall asleep. Part of that was due to the aches and pains resulting from a long ride, but most if it had to do with a stomach-churning sense of dread. Was he right? Was he wrong? Nothing was certain. And the doubts followed Voss into dreams where armies clashed, men died, and blood stained the snow.

The mercs were up and working two hours before dawn in keeping with orders from Voss. That meant they were ready to ride at first light. After giving Hawkins some final orders, Voss led a hundred men west. It was cold but clear, conditions that Voss chose to perceive as a good omen. With scouts ranging ahead, the column snaked between snow-clad hills and eventually turned south.

When midmorning arrived, Voss hadn’t heard anything from Hawkins but hadn’t expected to. The radios they had weren’t much good beyond a few miles. So with a blue sky, and no news from the east, the sound of thunder took Voss by surprise. He turned to look at Boss Jones, a man with dark skin, high cheekbones, and a reputation for being tough. “What the hell was that?“

Jones frowned. “I don’t know, but it ain’t good. That’s for sure.”

The sound lasted for half a minute and stopped. Now Voss felt an emptiness where the pit of his stomach was supposed to be. But all he could do was keep going, execute his part of the plan, and trust that Hawkins would do likewise. Hopefully, no matter what had taken place on Highway 189, the sudden attack on Hashi’s flank would take her by surprise.

But fifteen minutes later Voss heard a high-pitched mosquito-like whine and looked up to see something in the sky. Although Voss had never seen an actual airplane, he had seen pictures of them and realized he was looking at a toy. No, not a toy, but a miniature plane. Why bother? Unless it could take pictures of his mercs! How many such devices did Hashi have? A dozen? No wonder her scouts had never been sighted… They could fly! A fact that had escaped Charlie. Or had she bought the traveling medicine man off? Voss felt a rising sense of anger but forced himself to push the thought off. Focus, he told himself. Focus on the situation at hand. “Shoot it down,” he ordered, and the mercs tried. A volley of shots rang out, but the drone was a moving target, none of the mercs were armed with machine guns, and the sun was in their eyes.

So the tiny aircraft completed a circle unscathed, waggled its wings as if to taunt him, and banked toward the south. At that point Voss faced a real dilemma. The element of surprise had been lost. Should he keep going or turn back? Much as it galled Voss to do so, the obvious choice was to go back, because if he continued, Hashi’s forces would be waiting to crush him. It was humiliating, but Voss had no choice. He looked at Jones. “Turn the column around. We’re going back.”

Jones shouted orders, the back of the column became the front, and the detachment was soon headed east. They rode hard, so that clods of snow flew away from the horses’ hooves, and jets of what looked like steam shot out of their nostrils. As they ran, Voss was gripped by a sense of dread. The thunder… What had caused the thunder?

It took a full hour of hard riding to learn the answer. As Voss and his men rounded a hill, he could see his riders—hundreds of them—and that made him feel better. Then, as a section of Highway 189 came into view, a scene of incredible carnage was revealed. Dozens of craters could be seen, along with patches of blood-soaked snow and large chunks of raw meat. Horses? Yes, but as Voss drew closer, he saw that human body parts lay about as well. Boss Howard galloped out to meet him. Both men pulled back on the reins. Voss spoke first. “Hawkins?”

“Dead.”

“What the hell happened?”

“The road was mined. There must have been fifty or sixty of them. We lost all of Company A and half of B. More than a hundred and fifty men altogether. There are wounded too. Some won’t make it.”

Voss felt light-headed. Sara had been right. Damn, damn, damn. “But how?” Voss demanded. “Surely we weren’t the first people to use the highway since the mines were planted.”

“They were command detonated,” Howard replied grimly. “Munitions like that were widely available back during the second civil war—and it looks like Hashi found a supply.”

No wonder the bitch felt free to raise her prices, Voss thought. She was ready for war. “Okay, so she had someone stationed here. Did we get him?”

Howard said, “Nope,” and pointed upward. And there, flying lazy circles in the sky, was a miniature plane. Having spotted the column, all Hashi had to do was push a button.

Voss swore. “We ran into one of those as well. That’s why we turned back.”

“Yes, sir,” Howard acknowledged, “and I’m glad you did. Truth is I wasn’t sure what to do. Who knows? Maybe there are more mines up ahead. We could ride parallel to the highway, but Hashi would be able to see that and respond.”

“There isn’t much we can do other than bury the dead and get the wounded back to Afton,” Voss said. “Then, next time we come down here, we’ll make Hashi pay.”

That was what Howard wanted. Clarity, confidence, and orders to follow. Voss eyed the man as he rode away. If only there had been someone to tell him what to do. But there wasn’t, so all he could do was watch as the graves were dug and say some awkward words as the bodies were lowered into them. It took a long time to bury that many people, so it was midafternoon by the time the column rode north.

Voss was lost in thought as Odin carried him north. What would Hashi do? Send drones to track him? No, they didn’t have enough range. Had it been otherwise, the miniature planes would have been spotted up in the Star Valley.

His thoughts circled back. What would Hashi do? What would he do? After giving the matter some thought, Voss came up with what he hoped was the correct answer. Hashi would send scouts to make sure that the column was no longer in her territory. That suggested an opportunity of sorts, a chance to gain something and to salve his wounded pride as well.

So Voss brought the column to a halt, told Howard what he had in mind, and went looking for Boss Jones. The merc was about halfway back and busy examining his mount’s right rear hoof when Voss arrived. Jones looked up as Voss spoke. “I need you, plus twenty-five men, and enough supplies for seven days.”

Jones touched the brim of his hat, swung up into the saddle, and began to bawl orders. It took fifteen minutes to get ready. Then, as the column pulled away, Voss spoke to Jones. “I figure Hashi will send scouts to make sure we’re gone. If we could capture them we would learn a lot. The kind of stuff that would help us even the score.”

Jones nodded. “Sounds good. What’s the plan?”

“We look for the right spot, set up a round-the-clock watch, and grab the bastards.”

Jones looked thoughtful. “There isn’t much cover out here. Remember the last bridge? The one over the dry riverbed? We could hide the horses and the wagon underneath it.”

Voss nodded. “Good idea… Let’s get to work.”

It was dark by the time they returned to the bridge, found a path down to the riverbed, and began the process of establishing a camp. Voss toyed with the idea of setting up a roadblock on the chance that Hashi’s scouts would travel at night but decided against it. It would be difficult to see who they were dealing with, for one thing, plus his men were exhausted and likely to make mistakes. So he had Jones post guards, gave orders for them to be relieved every two hours, and volunteered to take part in the rotation.

Since a fire couldn’t be seen from anyplace but down in the riverbed, Voss allowed the mercs to build one, knowing it would provide warmth and help lift their spirits. Then he stood two hours of guard duty before slipping into his sleeping bag and falling asleep.

Dawn came quickly and with it the need to establish lookouts. Once the men had some breakfast in their bellies, Voss detailed seven of them to go south and establish hides on the north side of the first rise they came to. “Don’t break the skyline, and leave those hats here,” Voss instructed as the party got ready to depart. “Wear knit caps if you have them—or wrap strips of cloth around your heads. They’ll spot you if you don’t.”

Having shed their hats in favor of other coverings, the squad left. They had strict instructions to stay on the highway, where their boot prints would be lost among the tracks the column had left the day before.

With that accomplished, all Voss could do was wait. The fire had been extinguished so that the smoke wouldn’t give their presence away. All the mercs could do was tend to their horses and work on their gear as time dragged by.

Finally, after a couple of hours had passed, the radio Voss was carrying burped static. “Laraby here… Two people are coming our way.”

Voss frowned. Two didn’t sound right. He was expecting four or five. “Are they on horses?”

“No, sir.”

“Okay, keep an eye on them and give me another report when they get closer.”

The better part of fifteen minutes passed before Laraby called again. “They’re pretty close now. A man and a woman. Both armed.”

The couple sounded like everyday travelers to Voss. He could be wrong, though. Either way it would be a good idea to talk to them. “Wait until they pass over the rise and can’t be seen from the south. Then reveal yourself, tell them I’d like to speak to them, and will pay to do so.”

“And if they refuse?”

Voss thought about that. Gunshots could be heard a long way off, and if Hashi’s scouts were close enough to hear, that could ruin the plan. “If they refuse to speak with me, let them go,” Voss said. “I don’t want any gunfire.”

Fifteen minutes later Laraby and two others brought the couple down into the riverbed. Hot water was available thanks to a can of Sterno, so Voss was able to offer both visitors a mug of tea. They were understandably cautious at first but began to loosen up after a while as Voss encouraged them to talk. The man’s name was Joe, his wife’s name was Clair, and they were on their way to Afton. They didn’t say why and Voss didn’t ask.

Could they be spies sent by Hashi? Yes, but Voss didn’t think so. Still, it would pay to take whatever they said with a grain of salt, and he did. When asked to describe conditions to the southwest, they said that the only people who had electricity were the mercenaries that Hashi called the Ronin. And they could be vicious. On the other hand, Joe said that while food was in short supply, rumor had it that shipments of produce were arriving from the south, so maybe things would improve.

That bit of news was of particular interest to Voss since it meant that Hashi had secured a secondary source of food prior to raising prices on him—a wise move and one that would force him to compete or try to market his food elsewhere.

Voss sent the couple north with six rounds of .45 ammo to speed them on their way. Then the waiting began anew. Voss figured the Ronin would come that day or not at all, and he was right. The lookouts had been rotated numerous times by the time the radio call came in from a merc named Obey. “There’s five riders coming our way, Mr. Voss, and they look like Ronin.”

Voss had been eating his lunch, but he put the plate aside to grab his rifle. “I’m on the way.”

After telling Jones to stand by, Voss scrambled up onto the road and began to run. He was out of breath by the time he plopped down next to Obey. The merc handed him a pair of glasses. “They’re straight ahead,” the merc said. “You can’t miss ‘em.” And he was right.

The Ronin were wearing armor that looked similar to what Voss had seen in history books. It was uniformly black and consisted of a fierce-looking helmet, armor that flapped slightly as the mercs rode, and bulky boots. He could see what looked like rifles stored in western-style scabbards, and swords as well, all slung across their backs. Would the armor stop bullets? No, of course it wouldn’t. It was for show, a uniform of sorts that was meant to instill fear. Voss’s thoughts were interrupted as Obey spoke. “Uh-oh… they brought some friends.”

Voss raised the binoculars slightly and felt something akin to ice water trickle into his veins. There, galloping along behind the scouts, were more Ronin, all riding hell-for-leather. Voss brought the radio to his lips. “Jones… bring everyone forward. And hurry.”

“Okay,” Voss said to the men on either side of him, “get ready. And remember… shoot the horses first. Don’t even think about potting a Ronin until all the mounts are down. We don’t want any of them running home to momma.”

That got a laugh, as it was meant to. “One more thing,” Voss said as he slid his weapon forward. “I need prisoners. Don’t fire until I do.”

Voss owned automatic weapons, including some heavy machine guns, but couldn’t afford to fire them in anything less than dire circumstances. One of his long-term goals was to construct an arms factory, but that was a long way off. In the meantime he had armed his mercs with Model 70 bolt-action Winchesters. The 70 had long been a favorite among prewar deer hunters because it was sturdy, reliable, and accurate.

Some of the mercs preferred lever-action .30-30s for use on horseback, but Voss had chosen bolt-action rifles because of the kind of situation that he and his men faced now. It was damned near impossible to use a lever-action rifle in the prone position without rising, taking your weapon off target, or both. His Winchester was equipped with a scope, and the Ronin seemed to leap forward as the crosshairs settled on them.

In keeping with his own orders, Voss tilted the Winchester down until the scope’s reticule was centered on the lead horse. He squeezed the trigger, heard a loud report, and felt the recoil. The bullet hit the animal dead center and it went down as if poleaxed. The rider was thrown clear, but Voss ignored him as the others fired. “Switch to those in the rear!” Voss bellowed as a second horse tripped on the first and went down in a sprawl of kicking hooves. “Hit them before they can run!”

The order came just in time, as the mob of Ronin located behind the scouts tried to turn. Voss’s rifle seemed to reload itself as another cartridge slid into the waiting chamber. He fired and fired again. Then, worried that a drone might appear, Voss scanned the sky. Nothing. Maybe the little planes couldn’t fly that far, or maybe Hashi figured there were enough Ronin to handle Voss’s rearguard. Jones and the rest of the mercs had arrived on top of the rise by then, and Voss waved them forward. “Hunt them down! And remember, I need prisoners!”

As the reinforcements swept forward, Voss hollered fresh orders to the men around him. “Watch for friendlies! Shoot horses… nothing else.”

A couple of animals were still on their feet but quickly went down in the carefully aimed fire. Then Voss led his group forward and was pleased to see that Jones had taken three prisoners. They were seated on the ground with their hands locked behind their necks.

There were more Ronin up ahead, however, some of whom were determined to fight to the death rather than suffer whatever fate might await in captivity. They fought desperately, ran out of ammo, and left cover with their swords drawn. They fell to a quick volley of shots, and the battle was over. Thirty-six Ronin had been killed, seven had been taken prisoner, and none had escaped. Two of Voss’s men had been killed, and three were wounded, but none seriously. So it was a victory, although a Pyrrhic one, given the losses suffered earlier.

Rather than leave the dead Ronin where they were, Voss ordered his men to drag all the bodies to a ravine and cover them with loose rocks. The sky was dark. Hopefully it would snow. If it did, all the signs of battle would be obliterated. Then it would seem as if the Ronin had disappeared into thin air. Except that Hashi would know better and think twice before sending more of her men north. Or so he hoped. He had no use for the prisoners so their bodies joined the rest.

As Voss led his people north, the first flakes came twirling down. Gradually, as the snowfall intensified, the flakes combined to form a shroud of white. Blood had been shed, lives had been lost, and the land was unchanged.

Chapter Six

Near Red Deer, Alberta, Canada

L ora made a clucking sound as she guided her pony up onto a rise. A mule loaded with two bundles of firewood followed at the end of a rope. Once on top of the hill, Lora pulled back on the reins so she could pause and look out over the tepees that had been set up on the plain below. There were at least a thousand of them, all leaking smoke into the hazy air as adults took care of chores and children chased one another through the maze of cone-shaped dwellings. Some were covered with animal skins while others were wrapped in patched tent fabric or clad in multicolored tarps. It was a fantastic scene, and even though the trip south had been terrifying at times, Lora was glad to be where she was.

The better part of two weeks had passed since the battle at the bridge, but it seemed like much longer. During that time the leavers had traveled hundreds of miles while under the protection of the warrior named Twolakes. And Lora had learned how to ride a horse, how to live off the land, and how to deal with a different culture.

A gentle kick was sufficient to put the pony into motion. The mule was nibbling at a tuft of prairie grass by then, and Lora had to jerk on the rope in order to bring the recalcitrant animal along. A maze of interwoven trails led down into the camp, and Lora followed one of them to the main thoroughfare, which paralleled the river flowing through the center of the encampment. Water sparkled as teenagers led horses down to drink. The youngsters laughed as they splashed one another.

In fact, everywhere Lora looked, people were in high spirits because, after days of lead-up, the big celebration was scheduled to take place that night and promised to be a big event indeed. Something like two thousand people were expected to attend the ceremony, which would be held in the natural amphitheater located half a mile away. And from what Lora had heard, there would be speeches and a variety of entertainments, all leading up to a traditional dance.

Then, within a matter of two days, the entire village would be dismantled and everyone would depart. Not because they were tired of one another—but because no one area could sustain that number of hunter-gatherers for very long. Firewood provided a good example; Lora had traveled for two miles before finding enough for a full load.

So it would be necessary for the Blackfoot people to scatter, return to their various lands, and begin the process of preparing for winter. A year later the village would spring back to life. Where will I be? Lora wondered. She hoped it would be someplace nice.

By that time Lora had joined the steady stream of horses, mules, and people all headed for the amphitheater, located on the south side of the river. They splashed through a shallow spot, climbed the gently shelving bank on the other side, and followed a well-worn trail into a natural arena. The center of the depression had been cleared many years before, and the surrounding slopes were decorated with a patchwork quilt of blankets, all placed there by people who hoped to secure a good spot.

As some of the riders peeled away, Lora joined the line leading up to the fire pit located at the center of the open arena. When Lora neared the steadily growing pile of wood stacked at the center of the amphitheater, a child came forward to take the reins so that she could slip to the ground. After that it was a simple matter to unload, lead the animals away, and climb up onto the western-style saddle. Then it was a short trip out to the spot where Lora surrendered her mount and pack animal to a couple of teenage boys.

They were friendly, and Lora thought one might be trying to flirt with her but wasn’t sure. So rather than risk making a fool of herself, she hurried away. That was the problem with living in another culture. She knew there were rules but hadn’t mastered them yet. The leavers didn’t have tepees but were equipped with tents, all of which were set up at the northwest corner of the Blackfoot encampment. And Lora and the other leavers weren’t the only nontribal individuals camped there. Traders, merchants, medicine men, hucksters, entertainers, and drifters occupied the area as well. The tribal members called the area Ksikk (White) Town. But there had been a lot of interracial marriages during the last two hundred–plus years, which meant lots of Blackfoot Indians had light-colored hair and skin and blue eyes. Or as Twolakes liked to put it, “Being a Blackfoot is a state of mind.”

Regardless, most of Ksikk Town’s residents were male, nominally unattached, and obnoxious. So as Lora wove her way among tents, tarp-covered lean-tos, and some poorly constructed tepees, she was subjected to whistles, crude comments, and lewd invitations she wasn’t about to acknowledge, much less accept, all of which was new to her and one of the unpleasant aspects of life outside the Sanctuary.

Having successfully run the gauntlet, Lora entered the circle of tents that belonged to the leavers. As always, a guard was on duty, in this case her father. George had changed a great deal over the last few weeks. He was happier for one thing, a lot leaner, and clearly enjoying his relationship with Cassie Elano. His face lit up as his daughter arrived. “Lora! There you are… I was beginning to worry. We need to get ready for tomorrow. Twolakes plans to leave before noon.”

By that time the leavers, which was to say everyone other than Lora, had agreed to seek out a commune located near the town of Brooks, a place where, according to Twolakes, about two hundred people were farming the land. Just the sort of folk that George and the others were looking for. Would Lora like it? That remained to be seen, but she was determined to keep an open mind.

The rest of the day was spent preparing for the trip to Brooks. There was plenty to do, but the most difficult chore was washing their clothes, a task that usually fell to Lora. After getting a packet of precious laundry detergent from Cassie and borrowing two plastic buckets from a trader’s wife, Lora made her way to the river, where others were already hard at work. Some were there to wash clothes while others took sponge baths.

The first step was to wade out into the freezing-cold water and fill the buckets. After placing the clothes in one of them, Lora added some detergent. After a twenty-minute soak, each item was scrubbed with a brush prior to being rinsed in the river. Once that was accomplished, she had to wring each garment dry—a difficult task for one person. Fortunately a young wife stepped in to help Lora get the last of the water out.

Having lugged the wet clothes back to the tent, Lora draped each item of clothing on the improvised drying rack located next to the fire and turned them as they dried, the result being that everything Lora wore smelled of wood smoke even before she put it on. Finally the task was complete and Lora could put things away.

It was getting late by then, and many tribal members were feasting on wild game. Not the leavers, though. Although they were trying to learn they lacked the skills necessary to live off the land and were forced to dine on little more than the dwindling rations they had with them.

Lora fixed dinner for her father and always gave him some of her food, something he wasn’t aware of and would have objected to had he known. Lora had never gone hungry in the Sanctuary but rarely got enough to eat anymore and knew that was unlikely to change. Millions had died of starvation, and most of those who survived were malnourished.

By the time dinner was over, people were leaving their various shelters and streaming toward the amphitheater. Names had been drawn from a hat, and Don Beck’s was last. That meant he had to stay and guard the camp against the other residents of Ksikk Town.

Spirits were high, and Lora followed George and Cassie as the crowd pulled them along. Once across the river and inside the arena, Lora saw that the bonfire had been lit and was being tended by a group of boys. Had her wood been consumed already? Perhaps so.

The best seats were already taken, but the threesome found a reasonably good spot on the east side of the clearing, and that’s where they spread the tarp George had brought with him. There was a twenty-minute wait while the latecomers got settled. But then, the moment darkness fell, the ceremony began. There was an opening speech from a chief old enough to remember the days before the nuclear war and the troubles that followed. He had a battery-powered bullhorn, and his deep, resonant voice could be heard far and wide. “Millions of automobiles roamed the land back in those days,” he said. “And we, like the buffalo, lived on reservations. Now we roam free, the bison are coming back, and our children’s children will live to see the day when they will outnumber the dead automobiles.”

The speech was followed by an opening parade that was led by more than a hundred members of the Blackfoot tribe but included representatives from the Sioux Nation and the Ojibwa, all of whom considered themselves northerners. The southern tribes were the Kiowa, the Comanches, the Pawnee, and the Ponca peoples. The parade was followed by demonstrations of dancing, singing, and drumming.

Of equal importance, to Lora anyway, were the fantastic costumes that the men and women wore. Most were made of buckskin decorated with bright geometric patterns, fans of feathers, blocks of colorful beadwork, long fringes, fancy belts, and more. Each outfit was as individual as the person who wore it, a work of art. Finally, after a call for the next powwow, the gathering was over and people streamed across the river. They were subdued now. The big day was over and a year of waiting had begun.

By the time Lora got up the next morning, hundreds of early risers had already left. The next couple of hours were spent having breakfast, breaking camp, and loading the mules with supplies. Then it was time to mount up and follow the others through what remained of the encampment. Tepees were coming down, dogs tussled with each other over scraps of food, and the scent of wood smoke laced the air.

Once the camp was behind them, water flew as the lead animals splashed through the river and climbed the opposite bank. The sun was out, but the air was so cold that Lora could see her breath, and a steady breeze made it feel even worse. But there was nothing she could do except to zip her parka all the way up and try to ignore how cold her extremities felt.

The party consisted of thirty-two Blackfoot warriors, plus the leavers, which added up to more than forty people—a group large enough to scare most bandits away. So with very little to worry about, Lora was free to daydream and think about her future, the challenge being that it was nearly impossible to guess what lay in store for her.

She liked growing plants, so farming made sense. But was that all she could expect? Boys and men had begun to notice her since leaving the Sanctuary. But she was too young for marriage and somewhat vulnerable without being married. So where did that leave her? Living with her father? And with Cassie? That wouldn’t work. She already felt like a third wheel. All she could do was wait and see. Maybe the answer would reveal itself in Brooks.

It wasn’t long before Twolakes led the column across Highway 2 and into the mostly flat farmland beyond. The plan was to avoid main highways, as well as the people who traveled on them, and make a beeline for Brooks. That would not only save time but also allow the party to bypass the city of Calgary, which was under the control of fanatics called the Crusaders, a group that believed in human sacrifice. Lora shivered at the thought.

As the day progressed and the sun arced across an unblemished blue sky, the group passed through a number of small hamlets. Some were little more than ruins. Others had been fortified, and some boasted watchtowers. Lora saw a glint of reflected light as they circled one such structure and knew a lookout was watching them through binoculars.

There were other signs of life as well, including the occasional sound of a gunshot, a far-off finger of smoke pointing up at the sky, and fresh tracks that crossed theirs. But most of the locals lived in a perpetual state of fear and weren’t about to reveal themselves if they could avoid doing so.

As the sun sank into the west, Twolakes led them into a small ghost town. Empty-eyed buildings stared at them from both sides of the main street. All the structures had been looted long ago and now, after decades of neglect, were falling apart. The single exception was a church made from limestone, and that was where Twolakes took them. Not only was the structure defensible; it was surrounded by a shoulder-high stone wall, which soon became a corral.

After caring for her pony and collecting her pack from Mr. Nix, Lora entered the church. She had read about such places but never been in one before. Tim Hobbs clearly felt right at home. He went straight to what had been the altar, knelt in front of it, and began to pray.

The interior had been stripped and, judging from the trash that lay about, had served as a camping spot many times before. The fact that Twolakes was so familiar with the place made Lora curious. What had brought him to the town in the past? And, come to think of it, why escort the leavers to Brooks?

So later that evening, after Fry and Twolakes completed their rounds, she asked him. The Blackfoot was seated on a rickety chair carving a piece of meat off a chunk of dried venison. He smiled. “All of this land belonged to my people once—and all of it will be ours again. But only if we are vigilant. My job is to see, hear, and report to the chiefs. There are others—many others—and they have similar responsibilities.”

“So the chiefs know what is going on,” Lora said.

“Exactly,” Twolakes responded. “Brooks lies within the territory I cover. By taking you there, I can ensure that you will be our friends. And friends are like bullets. You can’t have too many.” That made sense, but Lora was still struck by how complicated the adult world was.

One of the few advantages of being a teenage girl was that no one expected Lora to stand guard duty. So having placed her sleeping bag in the choir loft along with the rest of the females, Lora was able to enjoy some undisturbed sleep. Getting up the following day meant leaving the snug warmth of her bag for the cold morning air, however—a process she would have delayed had it not been for the fact that everyone else was up and around. After a mug of hot tea and a serving of oatmeal, she felt better.

There was something oppressive about the inside of the much-abused church, so it felt good to carry her pack outside and hand it over to Nix. After she saddled her pony, it was time to mount up. The main street led them to the edge of town. The gunmetal gray sky seemed to stretch on forever, sere fields lay before them, and Lora could feel the weight of hidden eyes as they rode south. That feeling persisted through the morning and into the afternoon as they traveled through land that seemed to be empty even if it wasn’t.

The reason for the lack of activity became obvious later, as they came to the spot where two unpaved roads met. There, at the center of the intersection, were three stakes. Each supported the remains of a bird-pecked body. The one in the middle was wearing a crudely printed sign that read, “HERETIC.”

Lora felt sick to her stomach and was forced to look away. She heard Twolakes say something about Crusaders and took a long, slow look around. There were so many dangers. Hopefully, once they arrived at the commune, she would be safe.

They saw no further signs of the Crusaders as the day wore on, but the journey became increasingly difficult as they entered the area known as the Alberta Badlands. Suddenly land that had been as flat as a piece of paper looked as though it had been crumpled into snow-dusted ridges, creased hills, and twisted ravines.

Lora had become something of an expert at reading the people around her by then and was paying particular attention to the Blackfoot warriors because, unlike the leavers, they knew where the dangers lay. And she could tell that they were on high alert.

That made sense, given how easy it would have been for bandits to ambush them. What had once been a road was little more than a well-worn path now. Every curve, every hill, represented a threat, so Lora’s nerves were stretched tight by the time they emerged from a gully and spotted the rusty tower up ahead. It was positioned between a pair of boxy buildings in the middle of a flat area, and the entire complex was surrounded by a wire-mesh fence. There were islands of rust on the lopsided sign that hung from the barrier, but the name was legible: “Chevron.”

That was when Lora realized she was looking at an oil rig—one of thousands in North America and emblematic of a bygone era. “We’ll camp here,” Twolakes announced, and Lora thought it was a good choice. Even though they were filthy on the inside, the buildings had metal walls, some of which were dimpled where bullets had struck, a sure sign that they were defensible. And it was even possible to stable the horses and mules in what had been a equipment shed. So once lookouts were posted, there was reason to relax a bit.

After retrieving her pack from Mr. Nix, Lora went about the process of cooking dinner. Then, with three small servings of chicken and rice in hand, she went looking for her father. When she spotted him, George was sitting in front of a small fire with Cassie. They were eating whatever Cassie had prepared and were laughing at a private joke.

Lora knew it shouldn’t bother her, but it did, and she fought back tears as she turned her back on the scene. People were always hungry, so when she offered a bowl of food to Ralph Kilmer, he was happy to accept it and thanked her with his mouth full.

Lora sat down on an old roll-around chair and ate two servings by herself. It was, she reflected, a lot like having lunch in the school cafeteria, except Cory wasn’t there to annoy her—and much to her amazement, Lora missed him.

The next day was similar to the previous one. It consisted of many hours spent riding through endless gullies, ravines, and canyons, always fearful of attack. But if predators were present, they chose to let the group pass unmolested. Given how barren the badlands were, there was the very real possibility that they were as empty as they looked.

Finally, as the daylight began to fade, the hills seemed to deflate, ravines became shallow valleys, and the prairie took charge again. “Tomorrow,” Twolakes answered when Dero asked him. “Tomorrow we will arrive at the Morningstar commune.”

Lora felt mixed emotions about that. Assuming that the commune was willing to accept the leavers, she would welcome an end to the long, dangerous journey. She was accepted now. But once they arrived at their destination another group of people would get to judge her. Would they find her worthy? She feared that they wouldn’t. And what then? There was no place left to go.

They spent the night in a hollow where the cook fires couldn’t be seen and they could get water from a small stream. When they arose the next morning, it was with a sense of anticipation. Most of the group ate breakfast, while five warriors rode out to collect the rest of the horses. Because they knew the dominant mare and were familiar with her preferences, the task of finding the mounts was relatively easy. And sure enough, when they found the mare, the rest of the horses were grazing nearby.

It took the better part of an hour to get ready and hit the trail. Once on the way, Lora felt a renewed sense of optimism. Occasional breaks in the clouds let the sunlight through, and thanks to the steadily improving weather, only patches of snow remained. Birds chirped, prairie dogs watched them from afar, and when they stopped for lunch Lora saw a bull snake slither through the grass, all of which put her in a good mood.

They arrived at the outermost defenses of the Morningstar commune about an hour later. The first thing Lora saw was a barrier made of stakes. They were sharpened on one end, made of metal, and had probably been fence posts at one time. They were planted in the ground slanting outward. But, because they were two feet apart, a man could pass between them. That puzzled Lora at first. Then she realized that the stakes were intended to force horsemen to rein in and dismount. That would slow the attackers and give residents more time in which to respond.

Twolakes led the group along the line of stakes until they came to the point where two men were guarding a gate. It quickly became apparent that they knew Twolakes, and a short conversation ensued. A few moments later, the entire group was allowed to enter.

A winding road took them past fields where crops were beginning to show, through a pasture dotted with grazing cows, and up to a wall made of old automobiles. They were stacked three high—too tall for a horse to jump, and thanks to fact that the cars wouldn’t burn, impervious to fire as well. With no trees to work with, the wrecks were a good choice.

But how had the materials been gathered? Lora heard Don Beck ask that very question. The answer was that the cars had been removed from a junkyard in Brooks and hauled to the commune by oxen. Once they were at the commune, a homemade crane had been used to hoist the autos into place. The result was an ugly but serviceable barrier—one already pierced by plenty of loopholes through which weapons could be fired.

After speaking with a second pair of guards, Twolakes led the group through an open gate and into the spacious and well-kept compound beyond. A large two-story framed building occupied the center of the space, with small structures all around. There were people too, a couple dozen at least, all of whom had stopped to stare. Lora noticed that they were well clothed and, most important, well fed.

Twolakes raised a hand and the column came to a halt as two men and a woman came forward to speak with him. Shortly thereafter, Lora saw Harvey Nix, Larry Fry, and her father go forward to join the conversation. Then, about five minutes later, Twolakes waved the group forward, not to one of the main buildings but out to a one-story structure that sat all alone. It was surrounded by a chest-high fence with a sign attached. As they got closer, Lora saw that the word “Quarantine” was printed on it. The community was clearly taking precautions against the possibility of communicable diseases, and that was smart.

As the group came to a stop, Nix waved the tail end of the column forward so everyone could hear. “This is the commune’s quarantine center,” he explained. “We are going to spend the next week here. Then, assuming everyone remains healthy and the leaders of the commune grant us temporary residency, a ninety-day trial period will begin.

“Please leave your horses outside of the fence. And many thanks to Twolakes and his people for allowing us to use them. Be sure to say your good-byes tonight, because our Blackfoot friends are leaving in the morning.”

The next couple of hours were spent getting settled. The inside of the building was empty except for two dozen cots, a couple of potbellied stoves, and a sink with running water. The bathroom facilities consisted of two outhouses, both of which were located out back.

Once people had settled in, a good-bye party began. There wasn’t much in the way of food and drink, but a number of leavers took the floor to praise the warriors and thank them. Each speech was followed by a chorus of “Hear! Hear!” and enthusiastic applause.

There weren’t enough cots, so Lora volunteered to sleep on the floor. It should have been uncomfortable, but thanks to the warmth from the stoves and an increased sense of security, she had no trouble falling asleep. By the time she awoke the next morning, Twolakes and his warriors were gone.

Over-the-fence negotiations were under way by noon the first day, but Lora had no say in the discussions. So, with only a minimal number of chores to do, she had time to repair her gear and take lots of naps. Still, by the end of day two, Lora was bored—and the rest of the weeklong quarantine seemed to last forever.

Finally, at the end of day seven, each member of the party underwent an examination by a self-taught doctor, who proclaimed all of them free of communicable diseases. And that, as it turned out, was a sufficient excuse for a celebration.

Lora joined the others as the group was ushered into the main building, where the kitchen and a huge dining room were located. Mouthwatering odors filled the air, all of those not on guard duty were present, and Lora felt very self-conscious as a girl named Nomi took charge of her. “Come on,” she said cheerfully. “Young adults have their own table. You can sit with us.”

Lora had no choice but to accede and, in spite of her fears, soon found herself seated at a long table with about twenty teens. Some were older, some were younger, but all were friendly, so much so that Lora began to relax a bit as the other diners peppered her with questions. With no instructions to the contrary, Lora did her best to answer them. After listening to Lora’s description of the Sanctuary, Nomi nodded. “So you lived in an underground commune.”

Lora had never thought of it that way, but realized that what the other girl said was true. “Yes,” she said. “I guess so.”

It seemed that while each member of the commune had a specialty, there were certain functions that everyone shared, one of which was waiting on tables once a week or so. And Lora had never seen food like what the servers brought to the table—not at the Sanctuary or since. Because there on her plate was a large piece of fried chicken, a mound of mashed potatoes with gravy, and a pile of sliced carrots. Saliva flooded her mouth, her stomach growled, and she could hardly believe that the serving was meant for her. Maybe she was supposed to share. But after quick glances to either side, Lora saw that the others had similar portions.

So she dug in, and even though Lora knew it wasn’t polite to eat without pausing every once in a while, the food was so good she couldn’t help herself. But if Nomi was offended, she showed no signs of it. “You were hungry, huh?”

At that point Lora realized that while her plate was clean, the rest of them were still eating. “Yes. I’m sorry about eating so fast.”

“Don’t be,” a boy named Evan said. “All of us know what it feels like to be hungry. Real hungry.”

Lora wanted to cry but managed to force a smile instead. “Thank you… That means a lot.”

The rest of the evening was a blur. All Lora wanted to do was sleep, but there were boring speeches to sit through, a silly “get acquainted” game to participate in, and a dessert she was too full to eat. Eventually Lora got to slip into her sleeping bag, where she fell instantly asleep. She woke to the sound of someone speaking her name. It was her father. “Time to wake up, hon… All of us have chores to do, and you’re working in the dairy.”

After a hearty breakfast, Lora went looking for the dairy. It wasn’t hard to find, thanks to the presence of some cows and the odor of the dung pile located nearby. Being from an agricultural community herself, Lora knew that the cow manure would make excellent fertilizer, which would be especially important given how short the local growing season was.

As Lora entered the barn, she saw that the black-and-white cows were slotted into stalls along both walls—and people were already hard at work preparing to milk them. Then, before she could go looking for the person in charge, he came to her. He was wearing a hat with ear flaps, was in need of a shave, and had bad breath. “Well, look what we have here… fresh as a prairie breeze and pretty as a flower. What’s your name, honey?”

“Lora.”

“Well, Lora, my name’s Pruett, Larry Pruett… and I’m in charge here. That means I can put you on the cleaning crew, the milking crew, or the poo crew. It all depends on how hard you work—and whether you’re a team player. And you are a team player… right, Lora?”

It didn’t sound right somehow, but Lora couldn’t say no, not on her first day, so she said yes.

“Good,” Pruett said, as if an important deal had been struck. “I’m sure you and I will get along just fine. Have you milked a cow before?”

Lora said that she hadn’t and soon found herself being trained to wash udders, an important step in making sure that the milk would be free of contaminants. Then came a lesson in milking, followed by a midday cleanup and a second milking right after dinner. Of course the cows had to be fed as well, checked for physical abnormalities, and given whatever treatments were necessary, all of which was hard work.

So by the time Lora left the dairy and made her way to the dorm where single females lived, she was exhausted. But that was when she found out that a “get out of quarantine” celebration was about to begin, and according to Arletta Ash, the event was too important to miss.

So Lora accompanied Arletta to the social center, where all the leavers were gathered. And there, sitting on a table, were the packages of seeds the group had worked so hard to bring south. Strangely enough, Lora had nearly forgotten about them in the day-to-day struggle to stay alive. Now, after sacrificing so much, the leavers were about to give them away.

Lora had no way to know what sort of agreement had been struck but assumed that barring some sort of unforeseen difficulty, the leavers would be granted permission to stay after the ninety-day trial period was over.

There was a clinking sound as someone tapped a glass with a spoon, and Nix cleared his throat. “This is a special moment. And here to help commemorate the occasion are all three of the commune’s governing council, including Jon Frenchy, Marla Howar, and Roy Gibbs. Marla has agreed to say a few words.”

Howar was a short, plainly dressed woman with black bowl-cut hair, button eyes, and a snub nose. She welcomed the newcomers to the Morningstar commune and said all the things Lora expected her to say, including words of appreciation where the seeds were concerned. “On behalf of all our members, I would like to thank you for bringing these precious seeds to us. I promise you that we will treasure them, produce more, and find ways to share them with others.”

The statement was met with enthusiastic applause. Once it faded away, Harvey Nix stepped forward. There was a big smile on his face. “And there’s more good news! George? Would you care to say a few words?“

Lora felt an emptiness at the pit of her stomach as her father rose and urged Cassie to join him. “Thank you, Harvey. Yes, it’s my pleasure to announce that Cassie and I are going to be married.”

Lora heard the sound of muted applause as the door to the social center closed behind her. There were hundreds of people in the buildings around her, but as Lora made her way across the compound, she was all alone. There was no way for the others to know she hadn’t been told beforehand. Maybe her father assumed she knew. Whatever the reason, it hurt.

The next few days were very similar. Get up, work all day, and go to bed exhausted. That would have been okay if it hadn’t been for Larry Pruett. He was still slimy, but worse than that, he sought every opportunity to touch Lora. It started with a hand on her shoulder. But it wasn’t long before he found an excuse to put an arm around her waist and hug her. Worse yet was his tendency to appear whenever she was alone. That was when he would ask questions about the Sanctuary, conditions there, and whether she kissed boys. Creepy stuff… especially from someone ten years older than she was. It got so bad that Lora didn’t want to go to work and had considered talking to her father about the situation.

But what would she say? That Pruett hugged her? That he asked her questions? Not only would that sound stupid, but it might put the entire group in jeopardy. What if they weren’t allowed to stay because of her? That on top of her past mistakes. Besides, her father was looking forward to the wedding, and she didn’t want to bother him.

So as Lora made her way toward the dairy, she was thinking of ways to avoid Pruett. The sun was just starting to rise in the east, she could see her own breath, and the commune had just begun to stir. Suddenly the peace was shattered by the unforgettable roar of a diesel engine starting up, followed by the insistent clang-clang-clang of the alarm bell and the staccato sound of gunfire. The community was under attack.

Lora was scheduled to receive military training but hadn’t had any yet and wasn’t sure what to do. So she was standing there, considering the possibilities, when she heard a loud crash. Then, to her horror, a fifteen-foot-long section of the defensive wall collapsed and a huge bulldozer lurched up over the remains of a Ford pickup and nosed its way into the compound.

Lora wasn’t familiar with that type of machine but didn’t need to be. She had ridden in a Sno-Cat and the similarities were obvious. The machine had a powerful engine, tracks to push it forward, and a huge blade mounted in front. The mystery was how the attackers had been able to move the dozer into position without being heard. On an ox-drawn wagon perhaps? Not that it mattered—the deed had been done.

As half-dressed people began to spill out of the surrounding buildings with weapons in hand, mounted horsemen poured through the newly created gap. Blood Kin? No, Lora could see that these riders were different. They wore sculpted helmets complete with face masks and white pullovers decorated with upside-down crosses, and they carried a wild variety of weapons. Crusaders? Yes, Lora thought so. She started to run.

There was nothing but chaos all around as even more Crusaders poured into the compound and the citizens fought back. Lora saw Larry Fry step out of a doorway, raise his assault rifle, and pick off three riders before being cut down.

Then, as she bent to retrieve the pistol lying next to Marla Howar’s body, she saw Ed Dero try to run from one building to another, only to be trampled by a charging horse. So she raised the Glock, held it with both hands, and shot the nearest Crusader in the back.

As the first rider tumbled out of the saddle, a horse brushed past and a second got hold of her hair. Lora felt a stab of pain as he jerked her feet up off the ground. She fired without aiming, and the bullet blew the bottom part of the Crusader’s jaw away. As he let go, Lora hit the ground and rolled to her feet. She heard someone call her name and turned to see her father running toward her. He had a gun and was coming to protect her, but looming behind him was a horse and a Crusader armed with a long lance. The man shouted something incoherent as he spurred his mount forward.

Lora shouted “No!” but it did no good as the tip of the lance penetrated her father’s back and came out through his belly. Then, because of the downward angle, the weapon buried itself in the ground. George tried to stop himself, but his forward momentum was such that he slid down the shaft until his knees hit the dirt.

Meanwhile Lora stood with pistol raised and fired. The first bullet hit the horse as it passed her, the second blew a hole through the rider’s neck, and the third missed. The Crusader was falling as Lora ran forward to kneel next to her father. He was holding the bloodied lance with both hands. As he turned to look at her, Lora could see the pain in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Lora… so very, very sorry.” Then he gave what sounded like a sigh and slumped forward.

And that was where Lora was, sobbing next to her father’s body, when a blow sent her reeling. Seconds later she was on her feet and being hustled away. The journey to hell had begun.

Chapter Seven

Near Afton, Wyoming, USA

The dull ache refused to go away, so Tre sought refuge in the delicious darkness. But now, having released him, it refused to take Tre back. And the voice wouldn’t go away. “Hey, I know you’re in there. It’s time to rise and shine.”

Tre could see light through his eyelids—but a major effort was required to open them. Finally, once he did, Tre saw a young man with dark skin and a haystack of dreadlocked hair. The visage smiled. “That’s better… Freak is going to give you a pain pill and some water. Try not to choke.”

Suddenly the man was replaced by a girl with blue eyes and blond hair. It was ragged, as if she had cut it herself, and done so without using a mirror. Her lips were full but pursed as if in a perpetual pout. Suddenly Tre realized that he’d seen her before. But where?

Then he had it. Afton, the girl who had been roped, and the toughs… He was alive! The realization came as a pleasant surprise. Freak placed her left hand under his head and lifted. When her right hand appeared, she was holding a pill between her thumb and index finger. “Lollipop.”

The word made no sense, not in that context, but Tre understood. He opened his mouth and Freak placed the pill on his tongue. A canteen appeared and she held it to his lips. “Bubbles.”

Tre drank, sparingly at first, then greedily, as water trickled down his chin and onto his neck. “That’s enough,” the man said. “They call me Bones. What’s your name?”

Tre struggled to speak. The task was more difficult than he expected it to be. “Tre.”

“Well, Tre, you took a blow to the head and suffered a concussion. Do you remember the fight?”

Tre could see it, hear it, and feel it. The gang leader going for his gun, the recoil from the shotgun barrels, the spray of blood. He nodded.

“Good. No loss of memory, then… There could be lasting effects, though. Time will tell. In the meantime I’m going to make up a tonic of sage, nettle, and mugwort. That should put you right.”

Tre wanted to object, wanted to say that he had never heard of mugwort, but couldn’t find the strength. A great weakness came over him and sleep started to pull him down. Someone pulled a scratchy blanket up under his chin. Then she said, “Treetop,” and kissed him on the lips. Darkness fell.

There were dreams. Strange, twisted things that made no sense and woke him up. Sometimes there was light, and sometimes there wasn’t, and there was no way to gauge the passage of time.

Eventually the pain began to fade, his appetite returned, and Tre found the strength to sit. A day later he managed to stand. And then, with Bones guiding him about, Tre toured the hideout. It was located east of Afton, up in the Salt River Range, where steep terrain, forested slopes, and rushing rivers made the tunnel hard to find and easy to defend.

The hideout had been a coal mine once. That was obvious from the wooden timbers that supported the roof, the tool marks on the dimly lit walls, and the half-buried tracks that led deep into the mountain.

There were three “rooms,” including a stable large enough to accommodate twenty horses, a workshop complete with a forge, and a communal living area furnished with a variety of castoffs and warmed by a large coal-fed stove. That, plus the stream that ran along the east side of the main passageway, meant the residents had two very important luxuries: heat and water.

One by one, Tre met other members of the gang. The first was a young man named Knife, a sobriquet that fit perfectly given his appearance. Knife was at least six-two, with a saturnine face, and tattoos on his arms. When they met, Knife was working at a small forge. It was, according to Bones, one of the amenities the miners had left behind.

The coal-fed fire glowed and threw off waves of welcome heat as Knife used metal tongs to pull a long strip of glowing metal out of the flames. After folding the blank he positioned it on an anvil and began to pound on it with a hammer. A sweaty sheen appeared on his pale white skin, and droplets flew as he worked. “It’s going to be a sword,” Bones explained. “A katana.”

Tre had read about Samurai swords and looked on with considerable interest as Knife worked. “This is Tre,” Bones said. He had to speak loudly in order to be heard over the ring of steel on steel.

The response was little more than a grunt of acknowledgment as Knife plunged the steel into a bucket of gray water. That was followed by a loud hiss and an explosion of steam. “I read that Japanese sword makers fold their steel up to sixteen times,” Tre said. “How many folds are you going to make?”

Knife frowned as he turned to look at the newcomer. “What’s your name again?”

“Tre.”

“Fourteen. I plan to fold the steel fourteen times.”

Tre nodded. “Can I watch?”

Knife looked at Bones and back. “No. But you can help.” That said, he turned back to his work.

“He likes you,” Bones said. “That was a long speech by Knife’s standards.”

Then Tre was taken to meet Smoke and Fade. They were “a couple,” as Bones put it and shared an alcove. As Bones announced their presence and ushered Tre into the area, both women turned to look. “Good morning, ladies,” Bones said cheerfully. “The patient is up and around.”

One of the women had black hair, brown skin, and almond-shaped eyes. She was dressed in a shirt that was tied at the waist, buckskin trousers, and pull-on boots. Her eyebrows rose. “Look, Fade… one of Bone’s patients survived! It’s a miracle.”

The other woman had blond hair, wide-set eyes, and a generous mouth. Her outfit was similar to Smoke’s. “You’re right… This is a first. And he’s cute too.”

Tre felt blood rush to his cheeks and hoped the women wouldn’t notice. “Ignore them,” Bones advised. “They claim to be our scouts but spend most of their time lounging about.” Smoke winked and Fade smiled. Tre tried to think of something to say, came up empty, and was eager to escape as Bones led him away.

“Time for lunch, Tre… No offense, but you’re kind of scrawny. We need to fatten you up.”

The “cafeteria” consisted of three improvised tables in the middle of the common area. The kitchen was centered around a large coal-fed stove the miners had left behind. And there, hard at work, was the man everyone called Hog—not because he was fat or ugly, but because he had a fondness for bacon, or so Bones claimed.

When Hog turned to look at them, there was a big smile on his face. “You’re up and around! That’s good. I was running out of gruel. Sit down and prepare for a feast!”

And it was a feast by Tre’s standards. The meal included pieces of freshly baked bread, slices of canned corned beef, and a pot of mustard. That was followed by slices of apple dusted with cinnamon and mugs of hot tea. All of it was delicious.

It had been a long time since anyone had prepared a meal for Tre. The last one he could remember had been cooked by his mother the day before her death. He pushed the memory away as Fade and Smoke sauntered in. Freak arrived shortly thereafter and made a point of sitting next to Tre. She looked at him and smiled. “Kneecap.”

Tre, who had no idea how to respond, shifted uneasily. Bones came to his rescue. “The best thing to do is assume that Freak is saying something appropriate. Like, ‘glad to see you.’”

Tre swallowed and looked at Freak. “You too.”

A teenager named Snake arrived at that point. He looked normal enough, and Tre was at a loss to understand the name, until the boy began to lick some mustard off his hand. That was when Tre saw Snake’s tongue. It was split at least halfway back and it appeared that both halves could move independently. Tre had never seen anything like that before and wondered if it was a birth defect.

As Tre listened to the gang members talk, he got the impression that there were others. Guards who would eat later, some “wranglers,” and a person named Crow—a man who, if Tre understood correctly, was the group’s leader.

Once Tre finished his meal, he felt unexpectedly tired, excused himself, and went back to the side gallery that Bones called “the dispensary.” He lay on a cot, pulled a blanket up under his chin, and let sleep carry him away.

Tre rose an hour later with plans to visit Knife and help with the sword, but just as he was about to leave the dispensary, Bones arrived. “There you are… How’s the head?”

“I feel better. Thanks.”

“Good. Crow wants to speak with you.”

Tre felt a sense of concern and wasn’t sure why. Because he didn’t like to talk to people that were in charge of things? Yes, but, like it or not, there was only one answer he could reasonably give. “Okay, when?”

“Right now,” Bones replied. “Come on.”

Tre followed Bones into the main tunnel, under a low arch, and into a chilly alcove. A wooden ladder led straight up. It creaked as Bones climbed and Tre followed.

Once on top, Tre stepped off into what might have been an exploratory tunnel. Bones led him down the passageway to a crude doorframe. “Go on in… Once you’re done, you know how to get down again.” And with that, he left.

Tre stepped into a vaguely circular space. An unmade bed stuck out from the far wall. It was flanked by a small stove on one side and a large chair on the other. Clutter lay everywhere. As Tre looked around, he saw a jumble of clothes, books, weapons, riding gear, rolled maps, and even a stuffed raccoon, all of which ran contrary to his natural sense of tidiness.

The man seated in the big chair was in his thirties, which made him old by post apocalyptic standards. He had a full head of black hair, a bladelike nose that was reminiscent of a beak, and a long face. The eyes that met Tre’s were half-hooded and thoughtful. Like his namesake, Crow was dressed entirely in black and lounged with one leg dangling over the arm of his chair. “Welcome. Have a seat.”

Tre looked, saw that a smaller chair was hidden under some discarded clothes, and sat on them. “So,” Crow began. “Your first name is Tre. Do you have a last name?”

“Ocho.”

“Ocho means ‘eight’ in Spanish… Did you know that?”

“No.”

“Eight is also the symbol of chaos,” Crow observed, “which is emblematic of the time we live in.”

Tre was uncertain of what to say, so he said nothing. If Crow was offended, he showed no sign of it. “I’m told that you remember the fight.”

“Yes.”

“There was a witness, you know… I had sent Knife and Brute to Afton. They were supposed to purchase certain items. Freak wanted to go along and Knife let her come. That was a poor decision, looking back on it, but understandable since Freak had been to Afton before and didn’t cause problems the first time.

“In any case, Freak wandered off while Knife was talking to a merchant. Brute noticed and went looking for her. By the time he arrived, the townies had a rope on her. In spite of the name, Brute is only four feet tall. So he was about to go get Knife when you entered the picture. The way he tells it, you made the locals look stupid. Then, when their leader was about to draw, you blew him away. It was, according to Brute, a thing of beauty.

“But a townie hit you from behind and you went down. The crowd lost interest after that. The gang leader’s toadies took his body away for burial. Knife, Brute, and Freak were going to do the same for you. Then Brute realized that you were still alive and they brought you here. Bones did the rest.”

Tre felt awkward. “Thank you.”

Crow laughed. “No, we’re the ones who should thank you. I don’t know if you noticed, but Freak has a crush on you.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

Crow shrugged. “We don’t know. Bones has a theory, though. He thinks something bad happened to her and Freak retreated deep inside. Who knows? Maybe he’s right. But do me a favor.”

“Yes?”

“Freak isn’t ready for a boy-girl relationship. If she comes on to you, ignore it.”

Tre remembered the kiss on the lips. “Understood.”

“Good. That brings us to you.”

“To me?”

“Yes. You’ve seen what we have here. It isn’t much compared with the way a food lord lives—but there are plenty of people who would like to take it away from us. You can join us or you can leave. If you decide to go, my people will take you down out of the mountains blindfolded. You understand why.”

“So I can’t tell anyone where the mine is.”

“Exactly. Now, before you make your decision, I want you to know something about us. We’re bandits. But you’re a bright lad and you knew that. But,” Crow said, “we’re something more as well. This group is the nucleus for what will become an army. Eventually, when we’re strong enough, we will challenge Voss for control of the Star Valley.”

Tre thought about that. And for once he knew what he wanted to say. “That holds no interest for me. One dictator is the same as another.”

Anger flared in Crow’s eyes, burned there for a moment, and died away. “Fair enough… I understand why you see things that way. But I—that is, we—have something different in mind. We envision a democracy. More than that, we want to reconstitute the United States of America. Do you know what that was?”

“Yes,” Tre said. “I read a book called A People’s History of the United States.”

Crow’s expression softened. “Then you know… You understand.”

Tre was silent for a moment. “Let’s say you succeed. How do I know you won’t decide to keep the power for yourself?”

Crow laughed. It had a harsh sound. “You’re a pain in the ass… How old are you anyway? Sixteen?”

“Twenty.”

Crow laughed again. His eyes grew serious. “Fight by my side, Tre… Be there when we win. Then, if I betray what we believe in, shoot me.”

Tre looked Crow in the eye, liked what he saw there, and gave his word. “I will.”

• • •

Tre’s strength continued to improve over the next couple of days, and working at the forge was a significant part of that improvement. Knife believed in learning by doing, so the first thing Tre was ordered to do was to mine a small quantity of coal and bring it forward in a squeaky wheelbarrow. Once that was accomplished, Knife put him to work pumping the bellows, a position that allowed him to see what was going on. And finally, under Knife’s direct supervision, Tre was allowed to work with hot metal—but not on the sword because that would require skills he hadn’t developed yet.

More important, perhaps, was the way the physical exercise helped him recover from his injury—so that by the time the spy arrived, he felt like himself again. No one knew the spy’s identity except for Crow, and very few of the gang got more than a glimpse of the hooded figure as he or she entered the mine and disappeared up the wooden ladder to the level above. One thing was for sure, though: Crow put a great deal of trust in whoever the person was, because the spy knew where the mine was located.

In any case, there was a good deal of suspense after the spy’s departure. And, being the newest member of the gang, Tre felt it more strongly than most, because if they went on a raid, he would have a lot to prove.

The spy left about midday, and it wasn’t until just before suppertime that Crow came down to mix with his followers. He had a rolled-up map tucked under one arm. “Okay, there aren’t any secrets around here, so you know that we had a visitor. And yes, we’re going on a raid. A big raid. Let’s spread the map out and I’ll show you how this is going to work.”

It took a moment to spread the map out on one of the tables and place pieces of silverware on the corners. Once the process was complete, people gathered around. By looking over Smoke’s head, Tre could see. “A caravan loaded with food is going to leave Star Valley bound for Laramie two days from now,” Crow announced. “We’re going to take the food, keep what we need, and give the rest away.”

Tre was reminded of a children’s book he had read. It was called The Adventures of Robin Hood and was about a band of outlaws that robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Had Crow read that book as well? Not that it mattered. Supposing the bandit leader could capture the caravan and give food away, the effort would help build his reputation. This would be the first battle in a no-holds-barred war with Luther Voss. So that much made sense, and Tre approved. He looked around. If the others understood the strategic implications of the raid, he could see no sign of it on their faces.

“So,” Crow continued, “we will gear up today and leave early tomorrow morning. Once we pick up our horses, we will follow a variety of trails south until we reach the unpaved east-west road here.” As Crow spoke, a grubby finger stabbed a dirt road that led east from Star Valley to eventually make contact with a short stretch of Highway 350, which led to the town of Marbleton. Tre knew the road was unpaved because dots had been used to delineate the edges of it.

“Why is Voss sending his food over the mountains and through Marbleton?” Bones wondered out loud. “Wouldn’t it be easier to go south on 89, connect to 30, and link up with the interstate from there?”

“Yes, it would,” Crow replied. “But according to our spy, Voss is at war with Lord Hashi to the south. So if he sends his food down 89, he’ll run into trouble. This route is safer.”

“And they won’t be expecting an attack,” Hog put in. “I like that.”

“We will have the element of surprise on our side,” Crow agreed. “But don’t overestimate the value of that. This caravan is important to Voss. Very important. He’ll assign lots of guards to it.”

“How many?” Smoke inquired.

“I don’t know,” Crow answered. “That’s why I want you and Fade to leave as soon as you can. Ride hard, get in position off to the west, and let us know what you see as the caravan passes by.”

Both of the scouts said, “Got it,” in unison.

The conversation turned to tactics after that. The bandits were to shoot the leaders first, avoid shooting pack animals, and conserve their ammunition to whatever extent possible, all of which made sense to Tre, who was experiencing the first stirrings of fear. He’d been in scrapes—a number of them—but this was shaping up to be a full-fledged battle. How would he perform? And would he survive? He did the best he could to push such questions away.

The meeting broke up after that as everyone went off to get ready. Tre managed to intercept Bones. “Sorry to bother you… but I need some gear. Not to mention weapons. I lost my stuff in Afton.”

“No problem,” Bones said confidently. “I’ll take you to the storeroom. You’ll find whatever you need in there.”

Tre didn’t find everything he needed in there. The interior of the storeroom was an unorganized jumble of gear, weapons, and tools, and as far as he could tell, there was no inventory list or any rules regarding what people could take. So, as one would expect under such circumstances, all the good stuff was gone, leaving Tre to sort through what remained.

After pawing through all manner of junk, he found a Remington 700 Mountain rifle with a stainless steel barrel, similar to the Model 700 XCRII hidden just south of Jackson. But the weapon’s laminated stock was broken, which was why no one had taken it. Fortunately Tre came across a second 700 a few minutes later. The trigger assembly was missing and the barrel was pitted with rust, but the stock was intact. So Tre put both weapons aside and continued to scavenge. After some effort, he was able to find a serviceable parka, a sleeping bag, and a light pack.

Having left everything else on his cot, Tre carried the Remington rifles to the work area, where he took them apart. Combining the parts into a single weapon turned out to be more difficult than he’d anticipated, especially when it came to seating the barrel properly, but he was well on his way to solving that problem when Knife materialized at his side. There was a solid thunk as he drove a blade into the workbench and dropped a leather sheath next to it. “You’re going to need a knife,” he said with his usual economy of words. “Try this one.”

“This one,” turned out to be a knife with a seven-inch blade. The back edge was serrated—just the thing for sawing through rope and such. And thanks to the extra weight in the guard, Tre could tell that the weapon was perfect for throwing. Tre turned to thank Knife, but he was gone.

After eating a big breakfast, they set out early the next morning. Tre was carrying a pack, and a two-hour hike was required to reach the mountain meadow where the group’s horses were kept, but he felt good nevertheless. The sun could be seen through broken clouds, the air was relatively warm, and there was very little snow at that altitude. The streams that tumbled down the hillsides ran full, and animals were in evidence; they saw deer tracks, piles of pellet-like elk scat, and the picked-over remains of a dog or wolf kill.

Unfortunately Tre had something to fear besides the raid, and that was the act of riding a horse. It was something he knew nothing about and wasn’t looking forward to. He couldn’t say that, however, or was unwilling to, so the sense of dread continued to build as Crow led his gang into a large meadow. There was plenty of grass, and a small lake occupied the center of it, which made the spot perfect for grazing horses.

A man named Patch had been stationed there along with a leathery-looking specimen named Slick. Thanks to advance notice from the scouts, the two men had been able to herd all the mounts into a crudely made corral and get them ready, so it wasn’t long before Tre was up in a saddle receiving a riding lesson from Bones. “Pull right to go right, pull left to go left, and pull back to stop. That’s all there is to it.”

Tre’s mount, a swaybacked nag named Willie, had stopped to munch on some likely-looking grass by then. “How do I make him go?”

“Nudge his sides with your heels,” Bones advised, and demonstrated by urging his animal up the trail. The advice worked—to some extent, anyway—although Tre’s journey was interrupted by frequent stops as Willie continued to enjoy the trailside buffet. And Tre’s often fruitless efforts to get the horse going were an unending source of amusement for the rest of the group.

That was bad enough—but after a couple of hours there was pain to cope with as well—pain in Tre’s back, butt, and knees—so that by the time Crow called a halt, Tre was thrilled to slide to the ground, remove the horse’s saddle, and surrender the beast to Patch.

The spot Crow had chosen was protected by a wedge of rock that looked as though it had been thrust up from the earth. The riders were higher now, so there was more snow on the ground and a definite chill in the air as Tre helped gather wood. Eventually the sun dipped beyond the western horizon and darkness fell. That was the signal to light a couple of campfires. Shadows danced on the rock wall as people took care of their chores.

After washing up in the nearby stream, Tre got in line for a serving of Hog’s navy bean soup. There were chunks of pork in it, and when combined with a hunk of bread, it made for a good meal. And that, Tre was beginning to understand, was one of the ways Crow had been able to recruit and keep his people. But would they continue to stand by him if there was less to eat?

The night was long and cold, and it was difficult to sleep because Tre’s sleeping bag was only half as warm as the one he’d lost. But the fact that he was scared had a lot to do with it too, as did a host of doubts that plagued his mind. It had been stupid to join the gang. He could see that now and longed to be back in the Tangle. How was Ninja doing? And what about the hydroelectric project? He couldn’t proceed without the magnets, however, and would have to buy more.

Such were Tre’s thoughts as he finally drifted off to sleep. He woke when Bones spoke his name. “Hey, Sticks… Time to rise and shine.”

Tre sat up and stretched. “Sticks?”

“Yeah, as in the fighting sticks you used to kick that guy’s butt. Brute called you that and it stuck.”

It was silly—Tre knew that—but the name gave him a sense of pride, of belonging. And that, he realized, was the reason he had joined. That and the possibility that Crow would keep his promise. The thought made Tre feel better as he got up, packed his gear, and went to breakfast, which consisted of two pancakes and a single strip of Hog’s beloved bacon. Since Tre had been spared sentry duty during the night, he was assigned to help saddle the horses. It was hard work, but a chance to learn more about how to handle the animals.

Then it was time to mount up, take his place near the tail end of the column, and kick Willie into reluctant motion. The trail wound around the side of a mountain and passed through a meadow before following an old logging road south. They were passing through some second-growth timber when Fade came out to greet them.

Tre was too far back to hear what transpired between the scout and Crow, but it wasn’t long before the order came to dismount and proceed on foot. Patch and Slick were detailed to remain behind and guard the horses. Tre envied them in a way but didn’t want to be left behind either, so he felt mixed emotions as he followed the others through a screen of trees to the top of a sloped embankment. What had been a road lay below. It was still flat, and mostly clear, but the surrounding forest was in the process of reclaiming it. Crow called them together.

“Okay, here’s the situation. Smoke is stationed three miles west of here. She’ll let us know when the caravan passes her position. In the meantime we need to drop a couple of trees across the road. That won’t stop the caravan, but it will slow it down and give us the chance we need. Brute and Sticks can handle that.

“Meanwhile, I want Snake to find a tree about a thousand yards west of here and cut it partway through. Then, once the caravan has passed, you’ll dump it onto the road. Once that job is done, fire at the tail end of their column. Got it?”

Snake nodded.

“Right, let’s get to work.”

Having been issued an ax and a couple of steel wedges, Tre followed Brute over to a couple of very tall trees. The height was good, since tall trees would be required to block the road, but they were thick as well, and Tre had no idea how to proceed.

Fortunately, Brute did. He was carrying a two-man crosscut saw, and even though he was more than two feet shorter than Tre, his arms were thicker. “Grab on, lad,” Brute said. “Let’s cut some wood.”

The blade bit into wood, and Tre soon got the hang of the push-pull process, but what seemed easy at first soon became much more difficult. Brute was tireless, but it wasn’t long before Tre’s arms and shoulders were on fire. He didn’t want to ask for a break, though, and managed to hang on until Brute called for a wedge. It was Tre’s job to drive the steel into the cut with the flat side of the ax. That kept the saw blade from binding up and allowed them to continue.

Tre felt better after the momentary rest, for a while anyway. But it wasn’t long before the pain came back. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of physical effort, Brute ordered Tre to stand clear. Shortly thereafter a cracking sound was heard. When the tree fell, it was as if it was in slow motion. There was a loud snap as the top hit the opposite embankment and the top of the trunk broke off. That was followed by a heavy thump and the crackle of breaking branches as the rest of the tree hit the ground. “One down and one to go,” Brute said cheerfully. “Good work.”

Fortunately, the second tree wasn’t quite as thick. Even so, Tre was tired by the time it made a creaking sound, fell, and landed next to the first one. Crow was there to congratulate them. “Nice job… The caravan passed Smoke ten minutes ago, so grab your rifles and take cover. Remember… pick off the leaders, spare the pack animals, and make every bullet count.”

Tre took the final instruction seriously, and for good reason. Like the rest of them, he had only twenty-five rounds of ammo, not enough for a serious firefight. Making the situation worse was the fact that only ten members of the gang were going to participate in the actual ambush. Ten against how many, Tre wondered as he sought a position in the rocks. Crow hadn’t said. Was that an oversight or a way to boost morale? Tre hoped for the first but feared the second.

He did have one thing going for him, however. All the rounds he had were preloaded into detachable magazines, which would help him to reload faster.

Once all the gang members were in position, the wait began. Each minute seemed like an hour and, worse yet, gave Tre an opportunity to think about all the things that could go wrong. So he felt something akin to relief when the caravan’s scout finally appeared. He was wearing a Stetson and a brown duster and was mounted on a big chestnut. Tre could see the stock of what he assumed was a rifle protruding from the scabbard beneath the man’s leg, but the cowboy was carrying a double-barreled shotgun muzzle up as he rode. Just the thing for dealing with an ambush. And were he to fire the weapon, it would warn those behind him as well.

None of them moved as the scout approached the trees and pulled his horse to a stop. Then, having eyed the barrier for a moment, he took a long, slow look around. The rider hadn’t seen anything suspicious up to that point, so he turned his horse to the left and began to follow the tree trunks back to their raw stumps. Tre felt a rising sense of concern. All it would take was one look at the freshly cut wood and the cowboy would know the truth.

Tre swore silently as the scout made a clucking sound and urged his mount up the slope. He would see the stumps any moment now. Then he would fire the shotgun or get on a radio, and the—

Tre’s thoughts were interrupted as Freak rose from hiding and released an arrow from her compound bow. It flew straight and true, and the cowboy jerked convulsively and let go of the shotgun in order to grab the shaft that was sticking out of his throat. Then he made a horrible gurgling sound as he fell out of the saddle and hit the ground.

The horse shied away, but Brute was there to grab the reins and lead the animal up into the trees. Meanwhile, Freak went down to finish the scout with a wicked-looking knife and Crow appeared to tow the body upslope.

It had all occurred so quickly and been carried out with such efficiency that Tre felt a sudden sense of optimism. Given how professional the group was, they stood a good chance of success.

Then the waiting began anew, but it was shorter this time. Scarcely five minutes passed before three riders appeared, followed by a horse-drawn wagon and a long column of heavily loaded mules. There were more guards too, at least ten of them, and Tre couldn’t see the far end of the caravan. That spelled trouble.

Orders were to hold their fire until Crow took the first shot. Tre wished he had a telescopic sight as he tracked one of the cowboys. Lead him, Tre told himself, and go for a body shot. He felt tense but wasn’t scared, and marveled at that.

Even though Tre was expecting the gunshot, it still came as a surprise. The lead rider fell out of the saddle, the others jerked their mounts around so they could face their attackers, and Tre squeezed the trigger. The 700 thumped his shoulder, produced a loud report, and sent a slug spinning through the air. It hit a cowboy dead center and threw him back. The horse bolted out from under him and the body hit hard. Others were firing by then, and Tre heard a cracking sound as Snake completed his cut and the third tree came crashing down. The caravan was trapped. But even as that thought registered in Tre’s mind, things took a turn for the worse.

Suddenly the cowboys produced military-style assault rifles and began to fire three-round bursts into the rocks. Tre fired, missed, and was forced to duck as bullets struck all around him. Then bad turned to worse as one of the guards began to lob grenades upslope. Tre saw a flash, followed by a loud boom, and saw Brute’s partially dismembered body fly through the air.

“Shoot that bastard!” Crow shouted, and Knife did. But even as the bomb thrower fell, two mercenaries whipped the canvas off a pintle-mounted M249 light machine gun and one of them opened fire. A hail of slugs threw up geysers of dirt all along the embankment and tore into the scrub where Snake was hiding. His bullet-ridden body fell into view and rolled downslope. “Pull back!” Crow ordered. “Into the trees!”

So Tre glanced over his shoulder, realized that he should have planned for such a contingency, and would have to cover twenty feet of open ground before he could reach the trees. Would he make it? There wasn’t any choice. Tre waited for the stream of bullets to pass him by, turned, and ran uphill.

There was a shout. A bullet nicked his left heel, another tugged at his sleeve, and a third sliced along the outside surface of his right thigh. Gravel slipped under his boot. Geysers of dirt shot up to the left. What sounded like a bee buzzed past his right ear.

Then Tre was airborne, diving for the safety of the trees and hitting hard while gunfire rattled all around. He did a push-up, was pleased to discover that he still had the rifle, and went looking for a firing position.

The machine gun had fallen silent by then, and no wonder. After such an extravagant use of ammo, the cowboys wanted to conserve. And having pushed the bandits back into the forest, they were confident of victory. But were they confident enough to send men in after the attackers?

No. As Tre peered through the foliage in front of him, he could tell that the people in charge were more pragmatic than that. Two riders were already hard at work sawing through one of the trees. Then they would tackle the next. Once the cuts were complete, they would use horses to pull the shorter lengths off to one side. That would allow the wagon and the mules to pass through.

Tre took careful aim and shot one of the workmen. Maybe he could counter the effort and force the caravan to stay where it was or abandon the wagon. But it wasn’t to be. Bones appeared at his side. “We’re pulling out… You took a hit. Can you walk?”

Tre touched the wound and discovered that it was wet with blood. “Yeah, no problem.”

“Okay. Once we clear the area, I’ll patch you up.”

Together they made their way back to the horses. One by one the rest of the group joined them. Crow’s expression was dark and his voice was tight. “We’ll camp by the big rock and send a burial party back in the morning.”

Then he pulled his horse around and led them north. Tre felt a deep sadness. Two people were dead and they had nothing to show for it—no food, no weapons, and no hope for the future. The forest closed in around them, the sun disappeared, and Freak was crying. A battle had been fought, lost, and paid for. It began to rain.

Chapter Eight

Near Brooks, Alberta, Canada

Shots were still being fired, and screams were heard, as a Crusader escorted Lora out through the hole in the defensive wall. The bulldozer had been parked and the engine was off. To conserve fuel? Probably. Lora looked back over her shoulder, received a shove for her trouble, and stumbled.

After regaining her equilibrium, Lora was ordered to join a group of female prisoners gathered up ahead. Most were members of the commune, but Lora spotted two leavers as well. Arletta Ash was one of them, and she had been shot in the stomach. Cassie was kneeling next to the injured woman, trying to staunch the blood with her hands. She looked up as Lora arrived. There was a look of desperation in her eyes. “Arletta needs help.”

“It hurts,” Arletta said. “And I’m thirsty. Real thirsty.”

Lora looked around. Other prisoners had been wounded as well, and the Crusaders were ignoring them. It was difficult, but she mustered the courage to approach one of them. “One of my friends is hurt. Do you have a doctor? Or medical supplies?”

A face mask hid most of the guard’s features, but Lora had the impression of flinty eyes and two days’ worth of beard. “That’s too bad,” the Crusader said sympathetically. “Maybe I can help.”

Lora felt a surge of hope and led him over to where Arletta lay. “Yup,” the guard confirmed. “She was gut shot. There ain’t no way she’s gonna walk that off.” And then he shot Arletta in the face.

Lora screamed, and continued to scream, as Cassie pulled her away. Arletta’s death was her fault… and that wasn’t the worst of it. Having killed Arletta, the guard continued to stroll through the crowd shooting anyone who wouldn’t be able to walk.

Lora buried her face in Cassie’s shoulder and continued to sob until she ran out of tears. Finally, chest heaving, she wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Cassie’s cheeks were wet as well. “Don’t be. It’s perfectly natural. Tell me something, hon… Did you see what happened to your father?”

Suddenly Lora realized how selfish she had been. Cassie was engaged and desperate for information about the man she loved. Lora forced herself to meet the other woman’s gaze and saw the look of comprehension in Cassie’s eyes. “Oh, my God… No.”

“I’m sorry,” Lora said gently. “He was looking for you, shouting your name, when a Crusader speared him.”

That was a lie, of course, but Lora hoped it would bring Cassie some comfort later on. Suddenly their positions were reversed. Now she was holding Cassie as sobs racked her body and a final flurry of gunshots gave way to silence. But the quiet was soon replaced by a series of shouts as orders were given, the insane tolling of a warning bell as a Crusader pulled the rope, and the rattle of metal as guards pulled a chain off the back of a wagon. Once the chain was laid out on the ground, they shoved and kicked the captives into place to either side of it. The women on the left were connected to it by their right wrists, and those on the right were secured using their left wrists. Lora was on the right, and that would turn out to be a blessing since she was right-handed. As Lora looked around, she saw no familiar faces other than Cassie’s and felt a sense of dissociation. This can’t be happening, Lora thought. It can’t be real.

But it was real. And that became apparent as more guards appeared, two heavily loaded wagons arrived, and a Crusader ordered the prisoners to start walking. There were fifty-two in all, none over the age of forty. One woman looked up at the guard. “Where are you taking us?”

“To the slave market in Great Falls,” came the reply, and Lora felt a surge of despair. A slave! She was going to be sold. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. And there wasn’t a damned thing she could do about it as a whip cracked and the line jerked forward.

The chain made walking difficult. Prisoners who walked too briskly found themselves towing the rest. People who failed to keep up got stepped on. And whatever took place was sure to cause a ripple effect and annoy the guards. Whips would lash out, whoever happened to be within range would receive the blow, and the line would jerk forward.

After an hour or so, the women learned to walk in step and the corporal punishment stopped. But by that time, other sources of pain could be felt. There wasn’t any padding on the inside surface of the metal bracelets, so it wasn’t long before those who could were ripping strips of material off their clothes. Then, by wrapping the fabric around their forearms, they could protect their wrists. Lora was fortunate in that she had a bandana in her pocket, and that served the purpose well.

There was another problem, however, and it was worse. The attack had taken place early in the morning, so very few people had been dressed, Lora being an exception. Cassie was stuck with slipper-like moccasins. Even so, she was in better shape than the women who were barefoot. Some managed to wrap strips of cloth around their bloody feet during brief stops, but many were forced to hobble along.

Finally, after what Lora estimated to be a couple of hours, the prisoners were allowed to take a break. Small groups were allowed to relieve themselves, but the guards were never far away and were mounted on horses, so there was no opportunity to run.

Then they were hooked to the main chain once again, and all were led to a stream, where they waded out to stand side by side in the current. Lora felt the cold water seep into her boots but knew that was nothing compared to what some of the others were experiencing. She drank her fill and was busy washing her face when they were ordered back onto the bank.

That was when they were allowed to sit down and eat lunch. It consisted of beef jerky, slices of dried apple, and chunks of smelly cheese. Much to Lora’s surprise, the servings were fairly generous. But when she said as much to Cassie, the other woman made a face. “They’re taking us to a slave market, so they want us to look healthy and well fed. They’ll get a better price that way.”

The comment was cynical but made sense. Lora looked around. “What about people’s feet? Why don’t they do something about that?“

“I predict they will,” Cassie said. “Both to maintain our value and so that the column can move more quickly.”

And that prediction was borne out fifteen minutes later as the women were ordered to troop past a wagon. There was a pile of used boots and shoes on the tailgate. People like Lora were ordered to move on. Others, Cassie included, were given footwear. The measuring process consisted of holding a boot or shoe up next to the prisoner’s foot. If they were roughly the same size, a guard said, “Next,” and the line jerked forward. In the absence of a match, the Crusader would try another set, and if necessary another, until he could say “Next.”

Predictably enough, many, if not most, of the shoes and boots fit poorly. So the next day or so was spent trading footwear back and forth, breaking shoes in, and padding them with whatever the slaves could lay their hands on, none of which was ideal. But the results were, in the words of one woman, “better than nothing.”

The land was flat and eternally monotonous. Lora longed for the sight of a distant silo, a hill, or anything that would provide her with an objective, a goal that could be set, arrived at, and momentarily celebrated. But such waypoints were few and far between. Entire days passed while the prisoners marched between overgrown fields, past tumbledown barns, and over nameless bridges.

Occasionally they passed through small hamlets, all marked with the sign of the upside-down cross, an indication that they were still inside what the Crusaders referred to as “the holy land.” Even if Lora couldn’t see anything holy about it—or them, for that matter. Surely people who were “holy” wouldn’t enslave other people. But it seemed that heretics, which was to say nonbelievers, weren’t considered people. And if they weren’t people, there was no need to treat them as such.

In any case, whenever the column passed through such towns, Lora noticed that all of them were fortified. Who were they afraid of? Who would dare invade the holy land? The Blackfoot Indians? The Blood Kin?

Lora couldn’t tell. One thing was clear, however. Based on their expressions, none of the townsfolk were surprised to see a column of prisoners marching south. So such sights were common.

Lora assumed that male prisoners were sent to the slave markets as well, but Cassie wasn’t so sure. She had heard the guards talking about the construction of what they called “the citadel.” A city, really, which, from the sound of it, would require a great deal of labor to build. Maybe the men had been sent there. But regardless, her future lay to the south. And that raised an important question. “Who’s going to buy us?” Lora wondered out loud as the column took a lunch break.

“That,” Cassie said grimly, “is a very good question. You need a makeover.”

“I need a what?”

“You’re young and pretty. Remember, there are worse things than milking cows or working in a field.”

Lora had only recently begun to think that men could be attracted to her and didn’t understand what Cassie was saying at first. Then she remembered Larry Pruett and knew what he would do to her if he could, and she shuddered. “I never thought of that.”

“The key is to find a way to make you look like a farmhand rather than a ‘play pretty,’” Cassie said.

“How can we do that?”

“I don’t know yet,” Cassie replied. “If we had scissors we could give you a terrible haircut, if we had a razor we could shave your eyebrows, and if we had makeup we could put it on the wrong way.”

“But we don’t.”

“Nope. So I’ll think about it.”

The night was spent wrapped in a wool blanket lying side by side, still hooked to the chain. It was cold, but they were inside a barn, and that cut the wind. Lora couldn’t fall asleep at first as visions of her father’s death played over and over again in her mind. Her father had made her angry sometimes, and had frequently been thoughtless, but had been looking for her when he died. That brought tears to her eyes, which she tried to suppress. She knew others were suffering too, because she could hear them crying.

Eventually exhaustion pulled her down and Lora found herself in a maze of shadowy rooms. Something was after her, she was looking for a way out, and every hallway led to a dead end. And there, in the background, her father’s voice could be heard. “I’m sorry, Lora… so very, very sorry.”

The next day was much like the one before, as was the next, and the one after that. Lora didn’t have a map, but she could tell they were headed south by watching the sun. Some of the hamlets they passed through were little more than ghost towns. Others still had names, like Taber, Wrentham, Dayton, Warner, Milk River, and Sunburst. And it was near Sunburst when things changed.

They were inside the United States of America at that point—or what had been the United States. And that meant they were no longer in Canada and, more important, the so-called holy land, a fact made obvious when four additional guards joined the column, the Crusaders became even more vigilant, and the women were forced to walk farther each day.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the slavers were worried that someone, or a group of someones, might attack the column and steal the slaves. For one brief moment Lora would have welcomed that. But then she realized that it wouldn’t help her. A slave was a slave.

Under close guard, the prisoners marched down what an ancient sign said was Interstate 15. They camped in the lee of a low-lying hill south of Shelby and passed through Conrad the next day. That was when the women passed another column of slaves. It was clear that the people in charge didn’t like the Crusaders, because they shouted all manner of insults at them. Competitors, then? Or was something more at work?

They were getting close by that time, that’s what the guards said, and the mood was glum. The long march had been a trial, but all of them knew that what lay ahead would be worse, and they barely spoke to each other as a result. As Lora, Cassie, and two other women were released to “take care of business,” as one guard put it, the teenager’s thoughts were on the ordeal ahead.

Lora had finished and pulled her pants up, when Cassie pushed her way through the bushes. There was a strange expression on her face. “This is for your own good,” the older woman said. “Try not to make any noise.” Then she punched Lora in the face.

It hurt, and Lora stumbled. She was about to fall when two women grabbed her arms. “I’m going to change the way you look,” Cassie explained, and hit Lora again.

Lora uttered a cry of pain as a bony fist hit her in the eye. “Sorry,” Cassie said, “but it will heal.”

The beating lasted for another minute or so, and by the time it was over, Lora could barely see out of her left eye. Her lips were swollen, her right cheek was sore, and blood trickled down onto her chin. Cassie withdrew, the women let go, and Lora stumbled out into the open. She felt dizzy, paused, and nearly fell.

A guard saw Lora as she approached the column and turned toward the others. “You, you, and you,” the Crusader said as he pointed at Cassie and the women who had assisted her. “Who’s responsible for this?”

It was impossible to tell if the guard saw the beating as a simple breach of discipline or understood the true nature of what had occurred, as Cassie stepped forward. “I hit the bitch,” Cassie said loudly. “She had it coming.”

Lora heard a collective intake of breath from the other prisoners and started to say no, but it was too late. The whip made a swishing noise as it passed through the air. That was followed by a cracking sound as it connected with bare flesh. Cassie uttered a cry of pain, staggered, and tried to free herself from the loop of tightly braided leather around her neck.

The guard kicked his horse into motion, jerked Cassie off her feet, and began to drag her across the ground. There was no telling what would have happened next if a second guard hadn’t intervened. He cut the first man off and ordered him to release Cassie. “We want to sell her, fool… not bury her. Stop this nonsense and chain up. We have ten miles to cover before nightfall.”

Lora was already connected to the main chain by then and turned to look at Cassie. “You look terrible.”

Cassie rubbed her neck. “You look worse.”

“Thank you.”

“I did it for your father.”

Lora began to cry then. But if any of the other women noticed, they didn’t seem to care. And why should they? All of them faced the same risks that Lora did and had the same fears.

Lora continued the march with one eye swollen shut. That, plus the pain, made for a miserable afternoon and evening. They spent the night in a town called Vaughn. It was a short walk from the interstate to the L-shaped school. A Crusader gave bullets to the locals so that the prisoners could sleep in the old gym.

Lora noticed that the doors could be locked from the outside. That plus the metal rings attached to floor were clear indications that slavers stopped there all the time.

The floor was hard, but being inside was better than being outside, and despite the pain, Lora fell into a troubled sleep after fifteen minutes or so. She awoke with a headache and the knowledge that she would be someone else’s property by the end of the day, the equivalent of a horse or cow. The prospect filled her with dread. She had to force herself to eat and could tell that the others felt the same way.

The next few hours were spent hiking through the ruins of Great Falls, Montana. If there were things to see, Lora couldn’t appreciate them. One eye was still swollen shut, and the other was blurry with tears.

Eventually, after innumerable twists and turns, they passed through a gate and entered a holding area outside what had been a ballpark, a place where people played a game called baseball. Now, though, in the aftermath of the second civil war, the notion of playing ritualistic games seemed unreal.

Judging from the sound of a much-amplified male voice and occasional bursts of applause, it sounded as if the auction was under way. Before the Crusaders could march their wares into the park and put them up for sale, they had to pay a fee to the local slave lord. Once that was out of the way, the women were forced to stand while prospective buyers trooped past. Some wore fancy clothing and some didn’t, but all of them had hard eyes.

In addition to the stares, there was a good deal of poking and prodding as the buyers sought to figure out which prisoners were in the best physical condition. Lora had to close her eyes and grit her teeth as a middle-aged woman felt her arms and legs. “She’s strong,” the prospective buyer said, “but what happened to her face? The girl is uglier than the back side of a barn door.” And it soon became clear that the male buyers shared that opinion—because Lora was spared most of the groping that many of the others suffered.

That process took the better part of three hours, so it was late afternoon by the time the Crusaders led the prisoners through a second gate and into the park beyond. The bleachers were filled with buyers, sellers, and spectators. A wealthy few sat in boxes separated from the rest, but most occupied bench-style seats. Vendors were hawking food and drinks, people were chatting with one another, and the whole thing had a festive feel. Some of the spectators were more serious, however, and took the time to eye the slaves through binoculars.

A raised platform occupied the center of the arena, with ramps to either side. The man standing next to the portly auctioneer had black skin and was stripped to the waist. He had long hair and a powerful build and was barefoot. As the auctioneer spoke into a microphone, his voice boomed through speakers located all around the park. “Need a field hand?” the man demanded. “If so, Jim here would do real fine…”

Lora felt sick to her stomach as bidding began, the column came to a halt, and the guards started to free them. “Stay here until you receive orders to walk up the ramp,” one of them said as Lora’s bracelet fell off. “Then do what you’re told.”

The wait began. Once the male slave was ordered off the platform, the Crusaders sent a woman up and the bidding began. Lora tried to understand what was taking place but soon gave up. The auctioneer was talking too fast—and it was difficult to tell who was bidding.

So Lora looked up at the flat-bottomed clouds that were scudding across the pale blue sky, at the flagpoles from which tattered pennants flew, and at the blur of faces in the stands. She could hear them as they applauded the winner of an especially heated bidding competition or booed what they considered to be subpar goods, completely oblivious to the horror they were participating in.

Then it was Cassie’s turn. As they sent her up the ramp, Lora wanted to shout, “Thank you! Thank you for making my father happy, thank you for being a friend, thank you for trying to protect me.”

But it was too late. Cassie was up on the platform by that time, her long hair whipping in the breeze, while the monsters in the stands judged her worth. Then, in a matter of moments, she was gone.

Tears were running down Lora’s cheeks as she made her way up onto the stage and the auctioneer started his spiel. It was hard to follow the singsong cadence of his words. But Lora heard occasional phrases like, “young woman of childbearing age,” “strong enough to work the fields,” and “knows how to read.”

The last came as a surprise. How did the Crusaders know that? Perhaps a prisoner had mentioned it. Or maybe one of them had been standing nearby as she remarked on a sign. “Sold,” the auctioneer said. “Send the next one.”

Lora made her way down the ramp on the other side of the platform to find that a man in western attire was waiting for her. He had a leathery face and might have been any age between thirty and fifty. Not a word was spoken as he led her across an open area, through a gate, and out into what had once been a parking lot.

Groups of slaves could be seen here and there and were waiting—for what? More people to join them? Their owners? That made sense, and Lora’s theory was confirmed a few moments later when she was delivered to the point where about sixty people were gathered around a pole. It stood about twelve feet tall with a piece of wood on top. The letter “V” was centered on the sign. And there were guards, about a dozen of them, all on horseback. They were watchful but made no attempt to organize the crowd.

It seemed as if some of the slaves knew each other, but most didn’t and were waiting to see what would happen. They were dressed in all sorts of clothes, many of which were homemade or pieced together from other garments. The group looked like a convention of scarecrows.

Lora stood on tiptoes in order to look for Cassie but without success. It appeared that the older woman had been purchased by a different buyer. “So where are you from?” a female voice said. Lora turned to find herself looking at a young woman who might have been two or three years her senior, with a child on her hip, a serious-looking little girl who was busy sucking her thumb.

“I’m from up north,” Lora said vaguely. “From Canada.” Ever since she had been captured, Lora had made it a practice to avoid any mention of the Sanctuary. She despised the keepers but felt protective of the community and knew what would happen to it if the Blood Kin or the Crusaders learned of the habitat’s existence.

The other woman nodded. She had light brown hair with straight-cut bangs. Her eyes were green and separated by a small, well-defined nose. “My name is Sissy. Cristi and I are from Williston. Or nearby anyway. Have you heard of it?”

Lora shook her head.

“It’s in what used to be North Dakota,” Sissy said. “What’s your name?”

“Lora.”

“Well, Lora… if the rumors are true, we’re headed for a place called Star Valley in Wyoming. A food lord named Luther Voss bought us.”

Lora looked at the sign with the “V” on it. It was funny in a sad sort of way. After being taken out of the Sanctuary and forced to walk for hundreds of miles, she would be raising food again. The thought was comforting since the process of growing food was something she understood. She looked from Sissy to Cristi. “How did you wind up here?“

Sissy made a face. “My husband and I had a place way out in the hills. It was pretty well hidden, so I figure one of our neighbors sold us out. Tom fought back when the slavers attacked. He killed two before they gunned him down. I would have died with him if it hadn’t been for Cristi… Maybe I should have… But I couldn’t bring myself to kill her.”

Lora winced. “No, of course not.”

“So, if you don’t mind my asking, what happened to your face?”

“It’s a long story,” Lora said, and might have told it, except that there was a sudden stir as a woman on a black horse arrived. She was wearing a brown hat with a flat brim, a leather jacket of the same color, and khaki-colored riding breeches. They were tucked into knee-high lace-up boots, and the woman was armed with two pistols. But rather than carry them herself, the woman kept her weapons in specially crafted holsters secured to both sides of her saddle. Her face had a skeletal look to it, her voice had a hard-edged quality, and the guards called her “Mrs. Voss.” Luther’s wife? Probably. “Okay,” Mrs. Voss said. “We’re ready to go. Get ‘em processed.”

Orders were shouted and whips cracked as the slaves were formed into a column of twos. Lora found herself ahead of Sissy and behind a man with a large bald spot. Cowboys, all mounted on horses, herded the slaves like cattle. With the woman leading the way, they were chivvied out of the parking lot and onto a street. From there a series of turns took them to a facility topped by a huge sign that read, “Elephant Car Wash.” It featured a cartoonish pachyderm spraying water out of its trunk. Except that it wasn’t a car wash—not anymore. It had been converted into a slave-processing facility.

There were two lanes, one for men and one for women, separated by a wall made from sheets of weathered plywood. Judging from how well organized the facility was, Lora could tell that it had been in operation for a long time. Employees gave the same instructions over and over. “Men here—women there.” “Remove your shoes but keep them.” “Remove your clothes, and yes, that means all of your clothes.” “Throw your clothes over the outer wall. No, the other wall, idiot.” “Hold your hands over your head.” “The water will be cold.”

And the water was cold. Having removed her boots and disposed of her filthy clothes, Lora staggered as jets of water hit her from all sides. Then, as something stung her eyes, she knew there was some sort of disinfectant in the water. It seemed that Mr. Voss wanted to keep his property healthy. That was fine with Lora. She hadn’t had a shower in weeks and welcomed it.

Not all the slaves were so cooperative. As Lora passed through the gauntlet of nozzles, she heard complaints followed by the occasional crack of a whip and the inevitable yelp of pain. Like the rest of them, Lora was completely naked as she followed another female into the building beyond. It looked like an add-on, a structure that had been built adjacent to the old car wash using recycled materials. The tables that lined both sides of the shelter were loaded with clothes, and as the women passed through, they were given a bra, panties, a button-up shirt, a pair of jeans, and a hip-length jacket. There were benches in the open area beyond. A stern-looking matron with a cane-style whip was present to provide instructions. “Put everything on except for the shirt and jacket.”

Lora finished fastening her bra and turned to see if Sissy needed help, but the matron frowned at her. “This ain’t no church social… Keep moving.”

With the shirt and jacket in hand, Lora went over to join the line that led to a door. Each time it opened and closed, she took a couple of steps forward. Then the woman in front of her stepped through the opening, the door closed, and she heard what might have been a muffled cry.

That was strange, but before Lora could give the matter much thought, the door opened and it was her turn. As she stepped inside, a man wrapped his arms around her while another pressed a red-hot iron against the upper part of her right arm. Lora heard a sizzling sound, caught a whiff of burned flesh, and experienced a moment of excruciating agony. Then she screamed.

The man let go, she stumbled forward, and someone doused the fiery wound with cold water. Then, half-supported by a person she was only vaguely aware of, Lora was escorted into a rustic recovery area. Somehow, much to her surprise, the shirt and jacket were still clutched in her left hand.

A man entered via a different door, swayed, and fainted. Lora felt dizzy, saw benches, and hurried to sit on one. She was looking at her arm, trying to see the wound, when a woman arrived. She wrapped a clean bandage around the burn and tied the loose ends. Then she left to treat the man.

Lora heard a distant wail and stood as Sissy was escorted into the room. There was a grimace on her face and a bright red “V” on her arm. That was when she realized the truth. They had been branded. But the crying… Cristi… Surely they hadn’t?

Lora heaved a sigh of relief as a woman appeared with Cristi in her arms. The little girl was screaming but unharmed. Lora went over to accept the child, winced as the pain flared, and took Cristi over to where her mother was seated. Sissy’s face was white and she was shaking. “Th-th-thank you.”

Cristi wanted to be with her mother, so Lora put her down. “She’s okay… They didn’t brand her.”

“Th-th-thank God for that.”

It was, Lora decided, the one thing they could give thanks for, because any hopes of being treated in a humane fashion had been dashed. The stories were true. There was a hell, and for reasons Laura couldn’t fathom, she was in it. She went to retrieve her clothes and put them on, but the weight of the jacket made the wound hurt more, so she took it off.

Once the slaves had been “processed,” they were ordered outside and formed into a rough column of twos and threes. Rather than chain them, the way the Crusaders did, the cowboys preferred to herd them like cattle. Mrs. Voss led the way and three wagons brought up the rear. The long, painful day ended in a place called Fife.

During the days that followed, the column trudged through Monarch, up over Kings Hill Pass, and south through the towns of White Sulphur Springs, Ringling, and Clyde Park. From there the trek took them through what people still referred to as Yellowstone National Park to Jackson, Wyoming. The entire journey took twenty days.

During that time, their wounds healed, or most did, the exception being a man who developed a massive infection and begged the slavers to kill him, a chore that Mrs. Voss handled personally. Lora knew she was Luther Voss’s mother by that time and, having seen in her action, had plenty of reason to fear the son.

The mercenaries weren’t spared either. A sniper killed one of them. It could have been an old grudge, a case of mistaken identity, or target practice. Whatever it was, it gave the slaves a reason to rejoice, albeit very quietly, as they ate their dinners that night.

The other event of note, insofar as Lora was concerned, was the night that Mrs. Voss sent for her. It wasn’t a first. About two dozen slaves had been interviewed by then, although nobody could say why they had been chosen over all the rest.

So, based on the accounts Lora had heard from the others, she knew what to expect, which was a series of questions focused on her work experience. That wasn’t too scary, although any exposure to Mrs. Voss came with some risk, so Lora had butterflies in her stomach as she was ushered into a tent large enough to sleep six people.

It was like stepping into another world. A neatly made cot sat against the left wall. A small stove and a pair of matching trunks occupied the other. And there, placed at the center of the room, was the folding desk that Lora had heard about. It was made of highly polished wood and equipped with brass fittings, and the top was covered with green baize. There were three objects on the desk, and they were aligned with military precision. The collection included a pearl-handled Colt .45, a beautifully made fountain pen, and a leather-bound notebook. Behind the desk, seated on a folding chair, was Mrs. Voss. Her eyes were dark. “State your full name.”

“Lora Larsy.”

The pen made a scritching sound as it moved across the page. The eyes came up again. “You’re the one with the little girl.”

“No.”

“No, ma’am.”

“No, ma’am,” Lora said. “That’s Sissy. But I carry her daughter sometimes.”

A hanging lamp threw a monstrous shadow onto the wall as Mrs. Voss made a note. “But, if memory serves me correctly, you can read.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“That’s rare these days,” Mrs. Voss commented. “But the ability to puzzle out a few words is not the same thing as being able to read a book. Let’s see how good you are.”

So saying, the older woman opened a drawer, removed a book, and handed it over. Lora looked at it. The title was Atlas Shrugged, and it had been written by an author named Ayn Rand. “Open it,” Mrs. Voss said. “Open it and read to me.”

So Lora opened the book and read the first paragraph her eye fell on. “‘Her leg, sculptured by the tight sheen of the stocking, its long line running straight, over an arched instep, to the tip of a foot in a high-heeled pump, had a feminine elegance that seemed out of place in the dusty train car and oddly incongruous with the rest of her. She wore a battered camel’s hair coat that had been expensive, wrapped shapelessly about her slender, nervous body.’”

Lora looked up. “Good,” Mrs. Voss said approvingly as she took the book back. “Very good. Who taught you to read?”

“My father,” Lora replied. The answer was partially true and allowed her to omit any mention of the Sanctuary.

“We’ll be in Star Valley the day after tomorrow,” Mrs. Voss said. “That’s where the Voss family farms are located. Work hard, behave yourself, and who knows? My son needs overseers who can read and write. And they live quite comfortably. Keep that in mind. Dismissed.”

• • •

The city of Jackson appeared to be empty of life as the column passed by it and continued south. The lead merc was carrying a blue flag with a yellow “V” on it by then, and the effect was quite noticeable. People came out of roadside inns to stare. Slower traffic pulled over to let the column pass, and men touched their hat brims as Mrs. Voss rode by. The typical response was an infintesimal nod of acknowledgment, but there were times when she would address such a person by name, or even paused to chat.

But on more than one occasion Lora saw bystanders make rude gestures when they thought they could get away with it, so she sensed that a lot of the respect Mrs. Voss received was based on fear rather than affection.

And that was evident as the column entered the fortified town of Alpine without being required to pay the toll posted just outside town: “One Bullet per Person.” That’s what the sign said, but not for Mrs. Voss, who rode through the gate as if it wasn’t even there.

Not only that, but Buck Benton, the unelected mayor of Alpine, hurried out to greet Mrs. Voss in the friendliest possible way and proceeded to invite her to dinner. There were no such pleasantries for the slaves, of course, but they were allowed to bed down inside a city-owned warehouse, and that amounted to a luxury after so many nights in the open.

They rose early the next morning, ate a meal of steaming-hot porridge, and set off. It wasn’t long before they passed a well-maintained sign that said, “Welcome to Star Valley, the home of Voss Farms.”

It was silly, Lora knew that, since a slave is a slave. But the prospect of arriving at the column’s final destination filled her with a sense of dread, because once there, she sensed there would be no escape, nothing to look forward to each day but the next meal and a chance to rest at night.

Like it or not, the march took her through Etna, Thayne, and Turner, so that by the time the orange-red sun was hanging low in the sky, the column had arrived in the hamlet of Grover, which, according to one of the mercs, was located north of the larger and much more populous town of Afton.

The countryside was mostly open, surrounded by low-lying hills, and still home to pockets of shadowed snow. Clusters of trees dotted the verdant landscape, and cattle could be seen grazing in some of the fields. But what caught Lora’s eye were the greenhouses. There were hundreds of the glassed-in structures all laid out in tidy rows, and as the column turned left off the highway and passed beneath a sign that read, “VOSS FARMS, STATION 2,” she understood how the Voss family had been able to prosper in spite of the long, snowy winters. They, like the residents of the Sanctuary, grew their crops indoors—and on an enormous scale.

An arrow-straight road led between the well-kept hothouses toward a defensive wall and an open gate. Lora could see what she assumed to be slaves coming and going from the greenhouses and noticed that none of them were looking her way. Why was that? Because looking was frowned on? Because the sight would make them feel uncomfortable? Or because such sights were so commonplace they weren’t worth taking notice of?

The questions went unanswered as Mrs. Voss led the column through the gate and into the compound beyond. And there, directly in front of them, stood a large man with a shaved head. He bowed to Mrs. Voss and said, “It’s good to see you, ma’am… We missed you.”

But like the rest of the slaves, Lora was only marginally aware of the man, the two-story house in the background, and the outbuildings all around. Their eyes were focused on the wooden platform behind the bald man, the gibbet mounted on top of it, and the corpse that dangled there. They were home.

Chapter Nine

Near Afton, Wyoming, USA

Crow claimed that the raid on the food caravan was a partial success because the gang had been able to kill half a dozen mercenaries. But, given the cost, no one believed it. And that included Crow, judging by how withdrawn he was.

For his part, Tre had given the raid quite a bit of thought and had arrived at two conclusions. The first was that an L-shaped ambush would have been more effective. Had some of the gang been positioned behind the fallen trees, firing straight into the column, they might have been able to trap the mercenaries in a killing zone.

However, according to Tre’s analysis, the mercenaries would have still been able to fight their way out of the trap, thanks to their superior firepower. That led to the second realization. If the gang wanted to defeat Voss, they would need better weapons. But how? They couldn’t steal what they wanted from Voss. They’d have to look elsewhere.

Thus began the research project that consumed all the time when Tre wasn’t assisting Knife, standing guard duty, or performing chores. That meant long hours in the so-called library. It was a joke, really, since very few of the bandits could read and the books, some of which were strewn about the floor, were an unorganized mess.

According to Bones, the books had been taken in various raids and, based on a standing order from Crow, placed in the room where Tre found them. And because most gang members couldn’t tell which books had literary merit and which didn’t, they brought everything back. That included novels, scientific references, car manuals, phone books, collections of recipes, and at least one pop-up dinosaur book, which Tre enjoyed.

But ultimately the volume of most importance was a bound journal, which according to the neat printing on the front page, was the property of Minda Marley, a woman who, in addition to being a captain in the National Guard, had been an assistant professor of history at the University of Idaho.

The first half of the journal consisted of touchingly personal writings about her feelings for her husband—and notes having to do with a paper she hoped to write once the civil war ended. One entry in particular caught Tre’s eye. “At this point both sides have racked up some impressive victories and therefore believe that the war is theirs to lose. But I fear that by the time the last shot is fired, there will be nothing left to fight for.”

As interesting as such musings were, the real jackpot was located at the end of the journal and was written in the style of a military officer rather than that of a history professor. “2014-2-12. PLACED IN COMMAND OF A PLATOON OF MP’S. ENEMY ARMOR CLOSING FROM THE SOUTHEST. RCVD. ORDERS TO TRANSPORT WEAPONS FROM NAT. GUARD ARMORY/BLACKFOOT TO MOUNTAIN HOME AFB. IT’S GOING TO BE TIGHT.”

The next entry was dated February 13th. “THE TRUCKS ARE TOO DAMNED SLOW. THEIR HUMVEES ARE CLOSING IN. THEY HOPE TO ENGAGE AND HOLD US FOR THE HEAVIES. NO CHOICE. MASSACRE ROCKS. BURY AND RUN.”

And that was all. The rest of the pages were blank. There was no way to know what happened to Marley after that—or who had the journal before it wound up in the mine. Fortunately a book on the history of Idaho was included in the newly reorganized library, so Tre was able to look up “Massacre Rocks” and learn more about the rock formation also known as the Gate of Death or the Devil’s Gate, all names that the westward-bound pioneers had given to the narrow passage fearing that the Shoshoni Indians might ambush them. And in fact there had been a fight back on August 9, 1862, east of the rocks. Ten settlers were killed.

Tre stared at the picture that accompanied the article for a long time. It showed a cluster of weather-worn rocks, one of which stood head and shoulders above the rest. Was a large cache of arms buried at the foot of it or somewhere nearby? There was reason to think so, but no way to be certain. So should he return the journal to the library or take it to Crow and make his case?

Five days had passed since the disastrous attack on the caravan, and the bandit leader was still moping around. Maybe Crow was ready to listen or maybe he was so depressed that it would be impossible to break through. But in the final analysis, Tre had nothing to lose. Crow would respond or he wouldn’t. If he failed to take the opportunity seriously, Tre planned to slip away and return to the Tangle.

So he made his way up to Crow’s quarters with Marley’s journal clutched in his hand. There was no door, so all he could do was pause outside the entrance and call out. “Crow? Have you got a minute?”

The reply was gruff. “Who is it?”

“Tre.”

There was a pause. “Come in.”

Tre entered to find that the room only partially lit, cluttered with partially eaten plates of food, and badly in need of cleaning. Crow sat with his back to both the lamp and the door. He made no effort to turn and look. “What do you want?”

Tre struggled with his answer. He wanted to live Crow’s fantasy. He wanted to take Star Valley away from Voss and give it to the people. But that would require a leader, someone who could emerge from the dark hole he was living in long enough to get things done. But he couldn’t say that. Not to Crow, not to anyone, because to do so would require thousands of words. So Tre said what he could. “I know where a large cache of weapons is buried.”

There was another moment of silence. The chair made a squeaking noise as Crow turned around. Tre was shocked by what he saw as the light fell on the other man’s face. There were dark circles under Crow’s eyes, his cheeks were sunken, and he looked ill. “You what?”

“I know where a large cache of weapons is buried. It’s here… in this journal.”

Crow held out a hand and Tre gave the journal over. A match flared, a second lamp was lit, and more shadows danced on the walls. “I marked the relevant pages,” Tre said helpfully.

Crow chose to ignore the comment as he opened the journal, read the first couple of pages, and began to skim. That left Tre with nothing to do but stand and wait. Finally, after what might have been five minutes, Crow looked up. “Where did you get this?”

“From the library.”

Crow frowned. “So you don’t know anything about it.”

“No.”

“But you believe the weapons are there? Buried at Massacre Rocks?”

“We know the armories were looted. But this stuff was buried. So it’s different.”

“But what’s to say that Marley didn’t come back and dig it up later?” Crow demanded.

“The journal ends.”

“So you think Marley was killed.”

“Yes.”

“And all of her troops?”

“Yes. The enemy was closing in on them. That’s why they buried the weapons.”

Crow considered that. “You read the journal, so maybe someone else did too.”

Tre shrugged. “That’s possible.”

Crow frowned. “Why? Why are you pushing for this?”

“Because I want you to do all the things you said you would do.”

Crow’s eyes narrowed. “You’re a pain in the ass. Have I mentioned that?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Pass the word. We leave in the morning.”

With the possible exception of Freak, who never knew what was going on so far as Tre could tell, the rest of the gang was glad to hear the news and began to prepare. Rumors flew, and most of them were false, a fact that became painfully obvious when Hog spoke to Tre at dinner. “I heard you found a map!”

“No, it’s a journal.”

“Whatever… The main thing is that we’re going to have rocket launchers! That will even things up.”

Tre sighed. His attempts to tamp things down had met with very little success. His reputation and standing in the group were riding on what they did or didn’t find at Massacre Rocks. If they failed to find any weapons, he would take the heat instead of Crow. Having been forced to accept that, he took the plate that Hog offered him. “Yeah, rocket launchers would be nice.”

They left early the next morning, made their way to the meadow where the horses were grazing, and saddled up. Then, with Smoke and Fade leading the way, the rest of the gang followed. Crow came first, followed by Bones, Hog, Tre, Freak, and Knife. As before, Patch and Slick remained behind to guard the hideout.

A complex network of trails led them down to Highway 89, where they took a break and waited for the scouts to return. When they did, Smoke was carrying a flyer, which according to a traveler she had spoken to, was identical to others posted up and down the highway. The words “WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE” were printed across the top. Then, in smaller print, it said, “1,000 rounds of .45 ammo will be paid to the person or persons who capture, kill, or provide reliable information leading to the apprehension of the murderers depicted here.” It was signed, “Luther Voss.” There were three drawings, all of which were pretty good likenesses. Crow laughed when he saw his face and handed the sheet to Bones. “Pass it around.”

Once the sheet of paper made it to him, Tre was shocked to see his face sandwiched in between Crow’s and Knife’s. At least one of the mercs had a good memory. Suddenly, like it or not, Tre was committed in a way he hadn’t been before. Yes, he could still return to the Tangle, but it would be as a wanted man. That would make it much more difficult to survive on his own. “It looks like you,” Knife said. “Ugly as hell.”

So knowing that people were likely to recognize them, the gang was careful to bypass the fortified inn located in the hamlet of Freedom and rode west. As they did so, Tre was very conscious of the fact that Highway 34 was going to pass through Wayan and very close to the Tangle. Part of him regretted the decision to join the gang and wished he could return to his previously solitary life. But he had a purpose now, something worth fighting for, and knowing that made him feel better.

Having hiked the highway many times, always on the lookout for bandits, Tre enjoyed the feeling of invulnerability that went with being a bandit. Still, there was plenty to worry about because he knew that fifty mercs could be waiting around the next bend. If they were, the fight wouldn’t last very long.

The group arrived in Henry, Idaho, by nightfall. Although there was no town to speak of, they found a beautiful camping spot on the shore of what Crow’s much-abused map said was the Blackfoot Reservoir. As Tre looked out across the perfectly still water, he saw two conical mountains. They were almost entirely bare of trees and reflected in the reservoir. The sky was a deep shade of lavender and the stars were coming out. That was when Freak appeared at his side. “Balloon.”

Her hand was small and seemed to crawl into his. Tre felt an urge to put an arm around her shoulders and to kiss the lips that seemed to be waiting for that very thing. But then he remembered what Crow had told him. “Freak isn’t ready for a boy-girl relationship.” So he gave her hand a gentle squeeze and let go. “Balloon to you too,” he said, and went off to gather wood.

Tre stood sentry duty for two hours, but the night passed without incident, and they got under way the next morning. The sky was gray and it was raining, so Tre felt thankful for the flat-brimmed cowboy hat and poncho-style rain slicker that covered him and most of old Willie’s saddle. Thunder rolled as the column followed the east side of the reservoir south, and occasional sticks of lightning could be seen on the horizon. It was, as Hog put it, “a crappy day.”

The plan was to ride south to Soda Springs, follow Highway 30 west to Interstate 15, and take Interstate 86 to Massacre Rocks, what Crow hoped would be a two-day ride. After an hour or so, Tre was standing in the stirrups to relieve the pain in his knees when he saw Smoke round the gently sloping hill off to the right and gallop their way. The scouts always departed first and typically stayed well ahead of the column all day. So why was Smoke coming back?

Smoke began to shout as her horse skidded to a halt. “They got Fade! Come on… We need to save her.”

Crow reached out to grab hold of the horse’s bridle. “They? Who?

Smoke was frantic and the words seemed to tumble out of her mouth. “There’s a civil war battlefield on the other side of the pass. Tanks, armored personnel carriers, you name it. They’re scattered all over the place. There wasn’t any activity, none that we could see, so we rode in. That was when one of the tank people popped out of an armored personnel carrier and threw himself at Fade. They hit the ground together, and I was going to help, when two of them ran out in front of me. I shot one in the face and kicked the other. By then a couple of them had hold of Fade and were taking her away. That’s why I came for help.”

“You did the right thing,” Crow assured her. “Don’t worry, we’ll get Fade back. Do you know where she is?”

“No, but they were taking her west. So it will be over that way.”

“Okay. Knife, Sticks, listen up. Here’s what I want you to do.”

As Tre listened to the plan, his heart began to beat faster. Could he do it? Crow thought so… And if Knife had doubts, he was keeping them to himself.

The key, according to Crow, was stealth. He, along with the rest of the group, would follow the highway to the edge of the battlefield, where they would try to make contact with the tank people. Meanwhile, Smoke would lead Knife and Tre over the mist-shrouded hill on the right. Once on the other side, they would be at the northern edge of the battlefield. Then, after securing their horses, they would slip into the maze of shot-up vehicles and find Fade.

Knife and Tre followed Smoke south, up onto the nearly featureless hill, and into the mist. They were traveling fast—too fast for Tre, who feared that he would fall and his break his neck. But old Willie was sure-footed if nothing else, and he survived the journey. “Remember,” Smoke said as they tied their horses to a bush. “Keep it quiet. Don’t use guns unless you have to.”

Knife was wearing his Samurai sword slung across his back and had half a dozen other blades stashed about his person. Tre had a couple of improvised fighting sticks that he’d been working on for the last week or so, plus a knife and the nine-shot .22 Magnum revolver that had been recovered from Brute’s body.

Smoke led the way and Tre was impressed. She was fast and graceful and seemed to flow from place to place, much like the substance she was named for. Knife came second. His movements were quick, precise, and carefully calculated.

Visibility was limited, but Tre could tell that the terrain on the south side of the hill was flat, the perfect place for armored vehicles to clash. He didn’t realize they were in among the wrecks until a rain-shrouded hulk appeared on his right. The battle tank was huge, but judging from the fire-blackened hole in its turret, something had been powerful enough to penetrate even its thick armor.

Rain rattled on metal and gravel crunched under their boots as the bandits dashed from wreck to wreck, pausing every now and then to look and listen. It was during one of those moments that two tank people rounded a truck and ran into them. There was a moment of confusion and Tre found himself face-to-face with what looked like a cave man. Except that the caves he lived in were made of steel. The tank man’s face registered surprise as Tre shoved a stick up a nostril and rammed the other rod into a mouth full of rotting teeth. He was choking on it when Smoke jerked his head back and slit his throat. “Enough screwing around. Let’s find Fade.”

Tre looked for Knife and saw him standing over a headless corpse, sword in hand. He wiped the blade clean. Then they were off again, zigzagging from one vehicle to the next, when the fake negotiations broke down and the firefight began. Neither side wanted to use any more ammo than necessary, so what Tre heard was a flurry of single shots. That was when a witchlike creature dropped off a tanker truck onto Knife’s back. She had her legs wrapped around his waist and was about to claw his eyes when Tre jerked her loose.

Water splashed as she hit a puddle, made a screeching sound, and was silenced as both sticks struck her head. “Come on!” Smoke shouted. “Follow me!“

They ran side by side toward a boxy vehicle that was fronted by a fire pit and a sitting area protected by an old tarp. Poles of various lengths had been stuck into the ground, each topped by a human skull.

Two tank men were stationed in front of a tracked command post and raised their weapons as the bandits charged them. A shot rang out, a geyser of mud shot up, and Tre threw one of the fighting sticks like a spear. It hit the rifleman in the chest but did no harm. It was enough to prevent a follow-up shot, however, and gave Tre time to close with him. They collided, and as Tre grappled with his opponent, he could smell the other man’s rank body odor.

Wiry fingers wrapped themselves around Tre’s neck and began to choke off his air supply. Tre brought both forearms straight up to break the hold, kneed the other man in the groin, and snapped his head forward. The fight was over. All the strength went out of the tank man’s knees and he collapsed.

Tre stepped back, looked to the left, and saw a body lying on the ground. A muddy head lay nearby. It was faceup, staring at the sky. Knife nodded. “Nice job, Sticks… but try some cold steel next time.”

“She’s alive!” Smoke announced as she escorted Fade out of the command vehicle. “They were planning to eat her.”

Tre was thrilled to see the scout but went for his pistol as a man appeared behind her. “Don’t shoot!” Fade said. “That’s the Deacon… He was a prisoner as well.”

Tre took his hand off the .22 as all three of them made their way down a wooden ramp. Fade was disheveled and thirsty but otherwise okay. The Deacon had stringy hair, a bald pate, and bright blue eyes. An upside-down cross had been tattooed on the center of his forehead, and when he spoke he touched the symbol as if doing so would testify to the veracity of what he said. “Thank you! Thank you, Lord!” he said fervently. “For you have delivered me from the hands of evil into the arms of the good.”

Crow arrived at that point, along with the rest of the gang. They were on horseback. A rare smile appeared on the bandit’s face when he saw Fade. “Are you okay?”

Fade nodded. “Sorry, I feel stupid.”

Crow shook his head. “It could have happened to anybody. All right, let’s collect anything worth collecting and get out of here. This place reeks.”

The next two days passed without major incident. The rain stopped by the time they passed Soda Springs, a fortified town similar to Afton. Armed riders emerged to challenge the gang and continued to dog them all the way to the Bancroft turnoff. The night was spent at the Lava Hot Springs. The resort lay in ruins, but there were still plenty of pools to choose from, and the bandits took hot baths, a truly wondrous luxury.

They passed through the bombed-out ruins of Pocatello the next day. At some point during the civil war, the once proud city had been reduced to a lunar landscape of overlapping craters, gaping basements, and rubble-filled streets. Tre wondered why but knew the people who could tell him were dead.

The scouts located Interstate 86 without too much difficulty and led the group south. There was some traffic, but not much, and what there was consisted of hikers and travelers on bicycles and in horse-drawn carts, any of which could have been theirs for the taking. But Crow insisted that they be left untouched, and that gave Tre reason to hope. Maybe, just maybe, Crow would deliver on his promises.

It was late afternoon by the time they arrived at what was, according to a dilapidated sign, “MASSACRE ROCKS STATE PARK.” The land was dry and arid in spite of the fact that the Snake River bordered the park. What growth there was consisted of grass, scrub, and clumps of trees. If one looked closely, it was still possible to make out the foundation of what had been the visitor center, parking lots that were drifted with windblown soil, and the well-trod path that led to the distinctive pile of rocks. “Well, there they are,” Crow said matter-of-factly as the group led their horses up to the formation. “So where do we dig?”

That, Tre realized, was a very good question. More than fifty years of weather had erased any signs that Marley and her MPs might have left. But it seemed reasonable to make certain assumptions. The soldiers had been in a hurry, so that suggested a reasonably accessible spot. And since level ground would make it easier to dig, Tre figured they could ignore any sort of slope. Finally given the time constraint the troops had been working under, it seemed safe to assume that the cache wouldn’t be more than four or five feet deep. He looked at Crow. “I’ll take a look around, mark what I think are the most likely spots, and bring you back to take a look.”

Crow nodded. “Let’s pick a site before sunset. We’ll start digging first thing in the morning.”

So while the rest of them made camp, Tre walked the ground. Even with the parameters he had set for himself, it was a daunting task. Finally, after a good deal of wandering about, Tre drove three stakes into the ground. Site one was directly below the rock formation and the point from which the photo in the history book had been taken.

Site two was a little farther away but would have been easy to reach with a vehicle. Marley had been in a hurry, so why carry heavy boxes if they didn’t have to?

Site three was flat and easy to get to, but it had another virtue as well, and that was the fact that the ground was bare of vegetation, even though grass grew all around. Was something buried just under the surface? Tre thought so. But, having probed the ground with a steel rod, he was pretty sure that the object was a large rock formation rather than a cache of weapons.

Crow took the tour just before sunset and approved Tre’s choices. Then it was time for dinner and, due to the Deacon’s presence, there was another mouth to feed. He was free to leave but didn’t want to—and no wonder. Without weapons or gear, he wouldn’t last long. So Crow had allowed the Deac to stay, with the understanding that he would have to prove himself if he wanted to join the gang.

The night passed peacefully, and by the time the sun rose, Hog had breakfast ready. Smoke, Fade, and Freak were slated to act as lookouts. The rest of them took their tools and trooped to site one. Crow insisted on taking the first swing with a pick and did so with the fury of someone attacking an enemy. He was bushed ten minutes later and happy to surrender the tool to Bones.

The medic was more methodical, and as he broke ground, Tre and Knife were there to shove the loose dirt out of the way. They were making progress, but there were lots of rocks to contend with, and Tre was frustrated by how long the process took.

Finally, with Hog on the pick and Deacon wielding a shovel, they had a four-foot-deep hole and nothing to show for it. “We’ll dig side trenches,” Crow said bleakly. “There and there.”

Three hours of backbreaking work followed and the results were no better. All of them felt disappointed as they made their way back to camp, but Tre most of all. The whole exercise seemed stupid now, and he wanted to break it off. But they had come a long way and he was determined to see the process through.

It seemed as if every muscle in Tre’s body was sore when he got up to stand guard duty in the middle of the night and when he rose the following morning. And judging from the way other people moved, they felt the same way.

In marked contrast to the day before, most of the bandits were silent as they trudged to site number two and began to dig. And dig and dig. But just as Tre was beginning to think that site two was going to be just like site one, the Deacon made an interesting observation. “No rocks today,” he said as he wiped the sheen of sweat off his forehead. “Thank the Lord.”

Tre heard the words, realized what they might mean, and went over to inspect the pile of excavated dirt. That was when he realized that the Deacon was right. There were lots of small stones, but there were none of the larger rocks they had been dealing with the day before. Was that a matter of chance? Or had someone dug there before and heaved the big stuff off to one side? There were some sizable rocks lying around on the surface. “Let’s keep digging,” Tre said. “I have a good feeling about this one.”

About twenty minutes later the pick struck half-rotten wood and broke through. “We found it!” Bones enthused. “Come on… Let’s dig it out.”

There was a flurry of activity as everyone tried to help, got in one another’s way, and eventually sorted themselves out. As Tre watched, he felt a pleasant tightness in his chest. He’d been right! The trip was a success. But what sort of weapons did they have? And how about ammo? He could hardly wait to find out.

Wood splintered and nails screeched as they were removed. As the lid came off people crowded in to see. Bones was the first person to react. “What the hell?”

Tre was rendered speechless as he looked down at the skeleton. There were some scraps of leathery skin, but the rest of the person’s flesh had rotted away, leaving nothing but white bone. A few remnants of a uniform were visible, but most of that was gone too. “Somebody shot him in the head,” Crow observed dispassionately. “Dead center.”

“May God have mercy on his soul,” the Deacon said as he touched the cross on his forehead.

“It was an execution,” Knife said. “That’s my theory.”

“Could be,” Crow agreed. “What if they captured one of Marley’s men and he led them here?”

“Not that it matters,” Hog put in. “He’s dead and the weapons are gone.”

Tre surprised all of them by jumping down into the grave. Then, having straddled the skeleton, he drew his knife. A bit of poking around turned up part of a collar with a silver bar on it, a belt buckle, and a few coins.

But then, as Tre sought to reposition himself, he felt something give. Further investigation revealed a camo-covered military knapsack, which he tossed up to Knife. After climbing out of the hole, he went over to watch as Crow removed the contents. There was a laptop computer, a binder full of plastic-covered sheets of paper, and a handful of personal items. “This stuff is worthless,” Crow said disgustedly as he opened the computer and tapped on the keyboard. “We’ll leave in the morning.” Then, having left everything on a slab of rock, he walked away.

The rest of them followed. And even though they didn’t say anything, Tre knew they blamed him. Was that fair? No, of course not. But that was how things were.

“Lieutenant Greg Nulty.” That was, according to the name on the binder, the dead man’s name. And since no one else was going to do it, Tre assigned himself the job of refilling the grave. It was the least he could do.

Once that task was complete, Tre sat down to look at the contents of the three-ring binder. He could see why the people who shot Nulty had thrown it away. The operations manual was thick, filled with jargon, and the definition of boring.

So he turned his attention to the computer. Predictably enough, it was dead. But the Samsung NC215S was equipped with a solar panel, so there was a chance that Tre could bring it back to life later on. And, even if he couldn’t, the machine was packed with valuable parts.

The pack wasn’t worth keeping, so Tre left that and took the rest back to a very subdued encampment. Crow was off by himself somewhere, and the rest of them were taking care of chores, napping, or playing cards. So with nothing else to do, Tre sat down and began to page through the binder. The contents were boring, and Tre was about to put the notebook down, when he came across a section titled “SUPPLY CHAIN CONTINGENCY PLANNING: PRE-POSITIONED SUPPLY MODULES.”

Tre had never been in the military and found it difficult to wade through some of the mumbo jumbo, but he stuck to it and was eventually glad that he had. It seemed that back in 2014 there had been plans to drop special operations teams into wilderness areas. Once in place, they were to launch hit-and-run attacks against Republican targets. But first, before the teams went in, each “operating area” was to be presupplied with a so-called Wolverine Package, meaning everything the group would need for ninety days.

All of which was interesting. But the real so-what was on a much-folded road map that had been inserted into the binder. Once Tre spread it out, he saw that the letters “WPs” had been added to top of the page. “WP” as in “Wolverine Package”? He thought so. And there were five dots on the map with coordinates scrawled next to them. As Tre eyed the map, he saw that the closest supply module was located in a blank spot near Pauline, Idaho, a community located southeast of Massacre Rocks.

Tre felt his heart beat just a little bit faster. Had the supply modules been delivered and used? Or were they still there waiting for special ops troops who never arrived? If so, even one Wolverine Package could yield enough supplies to keep the gang going for months. But how likely was that? The odds against finding such a package were exceedingly long. So what to do? Take the information to Crow or save himself further embarrassment?

Tre thought about it for a long time before closing the binder and getting to his feet. He found Crow sitting on the ground leaning against a boulder. He was cleaning a pistol. He looked up. “What do you want?”

“I’ve been going through the binder,” Tre replied, “and I found something.”

Crow frowned. “What is it this time? A rainbow and a pot of gold?”

“No. A container filled with military supplies.”

Crow sighed. “Look, Sticks, I know you mean well, but we’re up against some hard realities. Hog says we’re running out of food. And not just here. Back at the mine too. That’s our first priority… finding food. We can’t afford to chase possibilities.”

“These aren’t possibilities,” Tre insisted stubbornly. “They’re real.”

“Okay,” Crow said wearily, “make your pitch.”

So Tre did, being careful to go over all the documentation, including the map. “The odds suck,” Crow said once the presentation was over. “You know that.”

“Yes. But have you got a better plan?”

The direct challenge came as a surprise to both of them. Anger flared in Crow’s eyes. “Watch your mouth, boy… and don’t give me that ‘I’m twenty years old’ crap. This conversation is over.”

Tre turned and was about leave when Crow spoke. “Leave the notebook.”

So Tre placed the binder on the ground and left.

After a meager dinner, Tre hit the sack. He wasn’t slated for guard duty that night but slept poorly and awoke tired. Breakfast consisted of herbal tea and a small serving of oatmeal. Crow took a moment to address the bandits once they were on their horses. “We’re headed for a town called Pauline. Then it’s on to Soda Springs, Wayan, and back home. Keep your eyes peeled. We could use some grub.”

So in spite of his comments the day before, Crow had chosen to swing through Pauline. But there was no mention of the military supply container that might or might not be there. Was that a strategy calculated to prevent morale from slipping further? Tre thought so but kept his thoughts to himself as they rode north, turned onto a secondary road, and followed it south.

They saw one inn and some fortified farmhouses, but most people lived well back from the road with only the occasional wisp of smoke to indicate that they were there. All the bandits had permission to forage, but the need to keep going made that difficult. Still, the scouts came up with a couple of free-range chickens, and Bones scored a hatful of apples by riding through an ancient orchard.

As evening approached, Crow began to busy himself with a compass. Tre figured he was working with the coordinates Nulty had written on the map. And that was how they wound up on an overgrown farm a short distance from Bannock Creek.

It consisted of a half-burned house, a dilapidated barn, and a pond out front. As they set up camp and Hog went to work plucking the chickens, Crow roamed the farm, seemingly at random. Except Tre knew what the other man was looking for and knew it wasn’t there. How could it be? According to the information contained in the binder, the plan was to drop Wolverine Packages into wilderness areas. And the farm didn’t qualify.

Tre felt his already low spirits descend even further as he took a couple of horses down to the pond. He was riding Willie and leading a horse named Betty. As Willie put his head down, Tre found himself looking down into the murky water. That was when he saw the shadow. A rock? No, rocks didn’t have corners.

Tre felt a sudden surge of excitement, urged Willie forward, and felt the cold water rise. Then they were there, circling what was clearly a large container of some kind. “Crow!” Tre shouted. “Over here!”

Crow came, as did the rest of them, and Tre took the measurements. That meant going neck deep in the water, but he didn’t care. Not if the container was what he hoped it was. And the results were promising. The box was ten feet long, eight feet wide, and something like eight feet high. It was hard to tell because the object was sitting on a bed of soft mud. The dimensions were consistent with what the military called a bicon. But what was it doing there? Tre had a theory. The farm was only miles from the Bannock mountain range. Perhaps that was where the package was supposed to go, only something had gone wrong and the helicopter had been forced to drop the bicon into the pond. Maybe they planned to come back for it… or maybe anything. There was no way to be certain.

“This could be what we’ve been looking for,” Crow said cautiously. “But don’t get excited. There may or may not be supplies inside. And who knows… maybe it’s full of water.” Tre hadn’t thought of that and felt his hopes plummet.

“That raises another problem,” Bones put in. “We can’t open it. Not underwater.”

“How ‘bout we drain the pond?” Smoke suggested. “All we have to do is block the inflow from the creek.”

“More digging,” the Deacon said sourly.

Tre had started to shiver. Freak threw a horse blanket over his shoulders. “The sun won’t set for an hour yet. Let’s get started.”

The rest of them looked at Crow. He nodded. “You heard the man… Let’s get started.”

Tre heard the word “man” and looked at Crow. Their eyes met and Crow gave an infinitesimal nod. Tre felt a sudden sense of warmth. Regardless of what was or wasn’t in the container, something important had been won.

Tre thought two or three hours’ worth of hard work would be sufficient to block the inflow. He was wrong. Each time the bandits built a dam, the combined forces of erosion and water pressure caused a break. By the time the task was completed, a day and a half had been spent on it. And with food running out, time was critical.

Then they were on day two of the effort, watching the water level drop, waiting to find out what, if anything, they had. The draining process took two hours, and once it was over, more than a foot of water still remained in the pond. In addition to the bicon, other objects had been revealed as well, including a rusty bedspring, a couple of tires, and a golf club.

Because of the water and the mud below it, a causeway had been constructed. It was made out of boards and nails salvaged from the barn. The bandits pushed the construct up into the air and dropped it into position. There was a tremendous splash, and water flew in every direction.

Then a two-man team comprised of Tre and Knife went to work on the container. Doors were located at one end of the bicon, but they were locked and blocked by at least a foot of mud. Besides, even if it had been possible to open the box, the last thing they wanted to do was let water get inside—assuming it wasn’t there already.

So Tre and Knife had to make a new opening by drilling four widely spaced holes on top of the metal-clad container and sawing holes between them. It was very difficult since all they had to work with was a fistful of hacksaw blades. The sun was low in the western sky by the time the final cut was completed.

Tre was ashore by then, nursing a sore hand, and held his breath as Hog lifted the two-by-two-foot square of metal and Crow aimed a flashlight into the hole. That was followed by what seemed like an interminable wait before he stood and a big grin appeared on his face. “It’s dry! And it’s full. Let’s see what we have.”

Once they’d started, none of them wanted to quit, so they worked into the night. And as case after case came ashore, Tre was astonished and thrilled by what he saw. Machine guns, assault rifles, grenade launchers, and a fortune in ammo. But that wasn’t all… There were medical supplies, MREs, radios, and crates of explosives. Stuff none of them knew how to use but were eager to figure out.

Finally, after the last box had been carried to the barn, those who weren’t on guard duty celebrated by opening two boxes of MREs. After tossing the stuff that looked iffy, they had a feast. A small fire was burning at the center of the dirt floor and lit their faces from below. Crow looked around. His voice was serious. “The good news is stacked over there… But there’s some bad news too.”

Tre knew what Crow was going to say, or thought he did, but chose to remain silent. Fade took the bait. “What’s that?”

“We’ve got what?” Crow demanded. “Maybe eight tons’ worth of stuff? How are we going to get it home?” That was a very good question—and none of them had an answer.

Chapter Ten

Afton, Wyoming, USA

There were rules. Lots of rules. The most important of which was, “Do what you’re told.” The corollary being, “Don’t ask questions.” Both of which were difficult for a person like Lora to follow. Especially when stupid people were doing stupid things. And that was how she got into trouble.

Lora had been at Station 2 for a week by then. Both she and Sissy had been ordered to work in Greenhouse 7. And, being new, they were assigned to pull weeds, an activity that was not only boring but largely unnecessary. Or that’s how Lora saw it. The problem was that each “house” was controlled by an overseer. And in their case that person was a dullard named Ponty. Word had it that he’d been a slave himself and had risen to his present rank by dint of hard work, stoic suffering, and unquestioning obedience. And that included an acceptance of the methodologies in place when he took over. Even if they were stupid. So when Lora suggested ways in which the operation could be improved, they fell on deaf ears. Safety, for Ponty at least, lay in keeping everything exactly the way it was.

The obvious solution was to go over Ponty’s head to Slave Master Rahman, a stern disciplinarian who liked to tour the houses immediately after lunch. Knowing that, Lora kept an eye on the door as she worked, and sure enough, Rahman arrived about ten minutes after work began. Ponty was there to greet him.

The slave master stood well over six feet tall. He had a shaved head, eyebrows so bushy they looked like caterpillars, and sensuous lips. Unlike the overseers, who typically wore bib overalls, Rahman affected a white suit.

Lora worked up her courage as Rahman and Ponty made their way down the main aisle. Then, as the men drew abreast of her, she stood. “Permission to speak, master.”

Ponty looked alarmed and was about to object when Rahman raised an imperious hand. “Permission granted.”

Lora felt light-headed. All the surrounding slaves were staring at her. The decision to speak had been a mistake. She knew that now, but it was too late. “W-w-weeding,” she stuttered. “There is n-n-o need to do so much of it.”

Ponty’s face turned white. The statement was tantamount to rebellion. The slave would be punished and so would he. Perhaps he could silence her and save himself. Ponty drew his arm back and was about to flick the whip forward when Rahman stopped him. His voice was stern. “What do you mean?”

Lora had seen the interplay between the men and felt a little more confident. “I mean that weeds are allowed to grow around the greenhouses. They produce seeds, which we bring inside on our clothes and shoes.”

Rahman stared at her. “That is a very interesting observation. Where did you learn that?”

Lora couldn’t tell the truth. Not without mentioning the Sanctuary. “I lived at the Morningstar commune before the Crusaders destroyed it.”

Rahman nodded. “You may return to your work.”

Lora knelt on the edge of the raised planter box and went back to pulling weeds. Nothing was likely to change. She knew that. But trying made her feel better.

The rest of the day was a long, dreary affair capped off by the one thing Lora looked forward to, and that was dinner. Not because of the way the food was prepared but because there were plenty of fresh vegetables. And after weeks on the road, she was hungry for them.

Nights were spent in a locked dormitory with the women who worked in Greenhouses 6, 7, and 8. There were forty-five of them, and Lora was still in the process of putting names with faces. A strict curfew was enforced by an overseer whom everyone referred to as “the Hag.” Fortunately the Hag had three dorms to monitor and was absent two-thirds of the time.

Lora slipped between the thin cotton sheets, pulled the wool blanket up around her neck, and waited for the lanterns to go out. The building was wired for electricity but didn’t have any. According to the rumors Lora had heard, the lack of power had something to do with a war between Voss and a tech lord named Hashi. Finally the lights went off one by one. That was followed by the familiar clomp, clomp, clomp of the Hag’s footsteps and the sound of a door closing.

Then Lora had to listen to the usual coughing fits, prayers that never produced results, and the sound of a crying child. In addition to Sissy’s daughter, Cristi, the dorm was home to two other children, both under the age of six. Once their sixth birthdays arrived, they would be taken from their mothers to be sold or raised separately, a prospect that haunted Sissy’s every waking hour.

As the coughing stopped and the prayers came to an end, some of the women began to snore. That was when Lora drifted off to sleep. But not for long. Suddenly a heavy weight fell across Lora’s thighs, a hand covered her mouth, and a voice whispered in her ear. “Good morning, suck-up. Time to rise and shine.”

Lora struggled as what seemed like a multitude of hands lifted her out of bed, jerked the covers off, and carried her to the bathroom, the only place where there was any privacy. Lora waited for some sort of reaction. Surely the other slaves could see what was happening. Then it came to her… Most if not all of them were in on it. Her feet hit the cold floor as a couple of women took hold of her arms.

A match flared, a lantern was lit, and Lora was forced to squint. That was when a woman named Vicki slapped Lora across the face. Vicki was thirtysomething, stocky, and clearly angry. “The bosses have their rules,” she began, “and we have ours. The first one is, ‘Do enough but no more.’ And you broke that rule. What? You think we’re stupid? You think we don’t know where seeds come from? Use your head. If we help Voss to grow more food, he will sell it, buy more slaves, and make them suffer. So we do enough to survive but no more. Got it?” The question was punctuated with a slap that caused Lora’s head to jerk sideways. She nodded.

“Good,” Vicki said. “This is your one and only warning. If you step out of line again, the Hag will find you hanging from a pipe in the showers. We’ll cry and say how sad we are. And Ponty will put it down as a suicide.”

“Time to break it off,” a voice whispered. “The Hag is on her way back by now.”

Strong hands lifted Lora and half carried her back to bed. She hid under the covers as the Hag reentered the dorm. Lora slept very little that night. A wild mishmash of emotions kept her awake. Embarrassment for being so stupid. Fear of what the other slaves might do to her in the future. And something akin to respect when she realized that the women around her were fighting back to the extent they could.

Lora knew all eyes were on her the next morning. That stemmed from simple curiosity in part, but there was a more serious aspect to it as well. Would she look scared? Would she try to talk to Ponty? The only person who knew for sure was Lora, and she hid her emotions as she joined the chow line. Sissy was there with Cristi on her hip. She looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Lora. They said they would hurt me if I told you. And I have Cristi to think of.”

Lora understood but couldn’t forgive her. A friend was someone you could count on no matter what, and Sissy had failed that test. Lora wasn’t surprised, however. One of the things she had learned over the last few months was that a person like Matt could be an enemy and an individual like Cassie could be a friend. So she told Sissy to forget it, made a note that the woman couldn’t be trusted, and elected to eat by herself.

Once breakfast was over, Ponty was there to lead them to Greenhouse 7. But instead of sending them inside the way he usually did, Ponty pointed to a pile of tools. His voice was even, but Lora could tell he was angry. “You’ll start by working outside,” he said. “And from now on, you will brush all foreign matter off your clothes before entering the greenhouse.”

Lora knew the slaves were looking at her, hating her, as she went to collect a tool. The tip of the whip stung as it found her back. “Pick up the pace,” Ponty said. “You have a lot of work to do.”

The next couple of days were very unpleasant. Except for Sissy, none of the other slaves were willing to speak with her, and Ponty rarely missed an opportunity to whip Lora. But then, three days after the short interaction with Rahman, an overseer named Nichols came to collect her. She was eating breakfast at the time and the buzz of conversation ceased as he entered, spoke to the nearest slave, and made his way over to where Lora was seated. The overseer was small, wiry, and dressed in bib overalls. “Are you Larsy?”

Lora stood. “Yes, master.”

“My name is Nichols. Follow me.” Every eye in the cafeteria tracked Lora as she was led out into the bright sunshine. She felt a sudden stab of fear. Where was Nichols taking her? The answer was to a horse-drawn wagon that was waiting about fifty yards away. The back was loaded with boxes of fresh produce. “Hop up next to the driver’s seat,” Nichols said, and pointed forward.

Once Lora was seated next to Nichols and the vehicle was under way, she felt a sense of relief. She wasn’t on her way to some sort of punishment. So where was the wagon going? Lora turned toward Nichols. “Permission to speak?”

“Shoot,” Nichols said laconically as the reins slapped the horses.

“Where are we going?”

Nichols looked surprised. “No one told you?”

“No, master.”

“You were selected to work in the big house.”

“The big house?”

“Yeah, you know. The house where Mr. Voss lives.”

Lora didn’t know—but it made sense. Voss had to live somewhere. She had other questions but didn’t dare ask them. She could think about the situation and draw her own conclusions, however. It seemed that the ill-considered interaction with Rahman had resulted in a promotion of sorts, since everyone knew that house slaves lived better than field slaves did. But a slave is a slave.

Still, she was happy to escape the people who hated her and get a fresh start. But play it smart this time, Lora admonished herself. Keep your mouth shut.

It felt good to have a plan, no matter how superficial it might be, and Lora allowed herself to relax as the wagon passed through a checkpoint and rattled onto the road. The first thing she noticed was the fact that there was quite a bit of traffic. And even though free people went armed, there was no sense of impending doom. Which made sense. Who would dare attack? Of course, safety came at a price. The locals had to pay the taxes Voss levied.

The scenery was pleasantly pastoral. There were neatly kept “stations,” all belonging to Voss, and some independently run farms as well, the latter being under contract to Voss. That’s what Nichols said. In addition to the greenhouses used to grow most of the food, Lora could see cows grazing in pastures and plots of healthy-looking corn.

Eventually they came to Afton, where, instead of being forced to wait in line, the wagon was ushered through a special gate. Such were the privileges associated with the Voss name.

Their destination appeared half an hour later. There was no need for Nichols to point it out. The fortified manor house was impossible to miss. It sat atop a hill, and as they passed through a heavily guarded gate, Lora saw the weapons emplacements located all around.

A twisting, turning road led up through landscaped slopes to a Y. One branch of the driveway veered right, but Nichols kept the wagon to the left. Then, as he rounded the house, the overseer brought the conveyance to a stop under the portico that connected the main structure to the building behind it. “See the door over there?” Nichols inquired. “That’s the entrance to the servants’ quarters. Go inside and report to Mrs. Winters.”

Lora said, “Yes, master,” and jumped to the ground. She paused to let a couple of women pass. They were headed for the big house and were carrying piles of fresh linen. Both were dressed in identical gray dresses. A man with a box full of boots was headed the other way. To polish them? Yes, Lora thought so. His uniform consisted of a white shirt, dark jacket, and matching trousers.

Lora followed the male servant through the door and entered a Spartan reception area. That’s where the overseer was. A sign that said, “Mrs. Winters,” was sitting on the wooden desk. The woman behind it had a doughy face and a red nose and wore her hair in a bun. But the most notable thing about her was the fact that she was very obese. Some of the people who lived in the Sanctuary had been overweight. But this woman was truly fat in a time when most people were malnourished or starving. “Permission to speak, ma’am.”

The woman looked Lora up and down in much the same way that a butcher might inspect a side of beef. “Granted.”

“I was told to report to you. My name is Lora Larsy.”

Winters shuffled some papers, found the sheet she was searching for, and squinted at it. “Hmm. It appears that Slave Master Rahman thinks you have the makings of a house slave. Maybe he’s right and maybe he isn’t. Time will tell.

“I’m going to assign you to the housekeeping staff. You’ll work side by side with another girl for a week. Then, if your performance is up to standards, you’ll be on your own.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

A cord and wooden handle dangled next to Winters. She gave it a tug. A girl appeared thirty seconds later. She had a round face, big eyes, and rosy cheeks. “Yes, ma’am?”

“This is Lora. Show her around. Make sure she has a bed and uniforms.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Lora will shadow you for the next week or so. Teach her the rules. And if she breaks one of them, I will punish both of you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Dismissed.”

The girl led Lora through a door and glanced back over her shoulder. “What a cow… My name’s Clara. Welcome to the big house. Come on. The female dorm is up on the third floor. And stay away from the men… Winters will whip you if you don’t. And me too.”

Lora followed Clara up a flight of stairs, past a shared bathroom, and into a dormitory. It was furnished with twenty neatly made single beds. A chest was located at the foot of each. “This one is available,” Clara said as they paused by bed 12. “It belonged to Nan until she spilled a tray of drinks on Mr. Voss.”

Lora looked from the empty bed to Clara. “What happened to her?”

“They put her in the hole.”

“The hole?”

“It’s a hole in the ground and it has a lid so you can’t get out. It’s freezing cold in the winter and boiling hot in the summer.”

“So they put her in the hole. Then what?“

“I don’t know. We haven’t seen her since.” The answer was given in a matter-of-fact manner, as if such occurrences were commonplace and to be expected.

“Come on,” Clara said. “We’ll get some clothes for you. I hope you like gray.”

Unlike Station 2, where workers were restricted to one shower per week, house slaves were expected to be clean lest they offend Mr. Voss or senior staff, a rule Lora heartily approved of. So she took a hot shower before donning a crisp gray uniform, black stockings, and square-toed shoes. After passing Clara’s inspection, it was time to make the scary journey from the servants’ quarters to the big house.

They entered through the back door, which was adjacent to a huge kitchen. “Lots of newcomers are assigned to the kitchen,” Clara said as they paused in the hall. “Mr. Oliver needs slaves to serve as dishwashers, pot scrubbers, and floor cleaners. It’s hot in there. And when he gets drunk, everybody suffers.”

Clara turned to point. “Those are the back stairs. Never use the front stairs.”

“Don’t tell me—let me guess. They’ll whip me if I do.”

Clara laughed. “That’s right. The first room on the right is the dining room. We’re going to clean it.”

“So we need to clean it every day?”

“No, we need to clean it three times a day. After breakfast, after lunch, and after dinner.”

“Why? Is Mr. Voss messy?”

“Oh, no… He’s quite tidy. And so is Miss Silverton.”

“Who is Miss Silverton?”

Clara glanced around. “Never stand still. Stay busy all the time. That’s the best way.”

Lora took note of the other girl’s reluctance to discuss Miss Silverton, wondered why, and followed her to a utility closet, where they armed themselves with dusters, brooms, and mops. As they stepped into the hall, Lora saw that a well-dressed man was coming their way. He had slicked-down hair and wore thick glasses. Clara curtseyed and Lora tried to imitate her. This, she assumed, was Lord Voss.

The man stopped. His eyes met Lora’s. “Are you new?”

“Yes, master.”

“What’s your name?”

“Lora Larsy, master.”

He nodded. “Welcome to the big house.” Then he was gone.

Lora turned to Clara. “Mr. Voss is nicer than I thought he would be.”

“That was Mr. Trenton,” Clara responded. “Mr. Voss’s assistant. He’s… well, you’ll find out soon enough.”

Lora sensed another mystery but could tell that Clara wasn’t ready to confide in her. They entered the dining room, which appeared to be clean, the single exception being a few bread crumbs under the chair at the head of the table.

But that didn’t matter. The entire room had to be cleaned all over again. Another waste of time. But Lora had learned her lesson back at Station 2 and didn’t say a word.

After they’d cleaned the already clean dining room, it was time to visit the beautifully furnished sitting room, the wood-paneled gun room, and the entry area just inside the front door. Due to all the foot traffic that passed through the area, the floor had to be scrubbed three and sometimes four times a day. “It’s worse in the winter,” Clara said. “Then we have to deal with mud, snow, and horse manure.”

Once they finished scrubbing and mopping the entryway, Clara announced that it was time to tackle the ground-floor bathrooms. “What about Lord Voss’s office?” Lora inquired, pointing at the closed door. “Shouldn’t we clean that?”

“We aren’t allowed to go in there while he’s working,” Clara explained. “So the night crew cleans the office. And Mr. Trenton’s too. But the bathrooms are our responsibility, and there are three of them.”

The next hour was spent cleaning the restrooms, the one used by staff being the worst. Once the cleaning supplies were put away, Clara announced that they were done. “It’s time to go to dinner. Follow me.”

Lora followed Clara to the back stairs and down into what must have been a huge basement—but it was hard to tell since most of it lay beyond locked doors. “That’s where they keep ammunition, emergency food supplies, and all the rest of it,” Clara explained. “We call it a house but it’s really a fort.”

And Lora believed it. By that time she had seen the neatly plugged gun ports, the firefighting equipment that was stored in key locations, and the first aid kits in every room. The implication was clear. Strong though he was, Voss had reason to worry.

The “cafeteria” had a concrete floor, wooden tables, and hard benches. Unlike Station 2, the house still had electricity, so there was plenty of harsh light. Food was delivered and dirty dishes were removed via a large dumbwaiter that was lowered from and raised to the kitchen above. Dinner consisted of whatever Mr. Oliver chose to send down, and according to Clara, that varied wildly. Some meals were like feasts, while others were little more than a bowl of watery soup and a crust of bread.

The dinner on that particular evening consisted of a hodgepodge of leftovers and loaves of freshly baked bread. Some of the slaves complained, but Lora wasn’t one of them. The food tasted better than anything she had eaten since leaving the commune.

Clara introduced Lora to the people seated at their table. A couple were friendly, but the rest were distant. Lora understood the reason for that. There were a few people, like Clara, who were blessed with eternally sunny dispositions. But most, herself included, were more reserved. And for good reason. Friends could turn into enemies in a heartbeat—or be snatched away, never to be seen again.

Once dinner was over, they trooped back to the dorm. At that point they had about an hour in which to press uniforms and polish shoes. Then it was time to slip into bed and, once the lights were off, to think. There were two subjects to consider. The first was how to fit in—and the second was how to escape. A variety of wild schemes chased each other through her mind until sleep pulled her down.

A bell woke Lora in the morning. Then it was time to get up, make her bed, and take a shower. Breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs and toast. Then Lora followed Clara to the entry area, where they gave it the first cleaning of the day. Once that chore was complete, Clara led Lora up the back stairs to the floor above. “There are four bedrooms,” Clara said as they arrived on the landing that bordered the stairwell. Paintings hung on the walls, landscapes mostly, along with a few portraits.

“That’s the entrance to the master suite,” Clara said, pointing to a pair of double doors. “Mr. Trenton’s room is to the left of that, followed by two guest rooms, and Miss Silverton’s room to your right. Each suite has a bath, so the second floor will keep us busy all morning.”

They began by cleaning the empty rooms to give Voss, Trenton, and the mysterious Miss Silverton plenty of time to get up. Lora was quite curious about Silverton by then and hoped to catch a glimpse of her. “Okay,” Clara whispered, “I’ll knock on the door. Remember… Miss Silverton is one of us. So be nice to her and forget everything you see. Understood?”

Lora, who had no idea what she was agreeing to, nodded her head. Clara knocked and Lora heard a female voice say, “Come in.”

The door opened onto a large, well-furnished room. There were two tall windows opposite the entrance, both fitted with steel shutters. A large bed was positioned between them with tables to either side of it. A small sitting area occupied the left corner of the room and a dressing table was centered on the right wall. And there, seated on an upholstered bench, was Sara Silverton.

Lora could see the older woman’s face in the mirror and was struck by how beautiful she was. Silverton’s shoulder-length hair served to frame her heart-shaped face. Large luminous eyes looked back at her. “Good morning… I heard there was a new girl. What’s your name?”

“Lora Larsy, ma’am.”

“There’s no need to call me ma’am. I’m a slave too.”

“She tried to escape,” Clara put in. “Twice.”

Lora’s eyes widened. “Really? Did they punish you?”

“Lord Voss put these on me,” Silverton replied. Lora heard a rattling sound as Silverton stood and lifted the hem of her dressing gown. That was when Laura saw the ankle chain.

“But…”

“Why didn’t Lord Voss kill me? The answer’s simple. I have a talent. Something he values.”

Lora glanced at the bed and Silverton laughed. “No, not that. Although he’d like to.”

Silverton was so direct, so accessible, that Lora trusted her right away. “What, then?”

Silverton’s face suddenly went blank. “Do you know a person named George? Someone in the spirit world?”

A chill ran down Lora’s arms. “My father was named George.”

Silverton’s eyes rolled back into focus. “He says he’s sorry.”

Lora remembered her father’s final words and burst into tears. Somehow a cloud of perfume enveloped her and Lora found herself in Silverton’s arms. The older woman stroked her hair. “Don’t cry… He’s in a better place now. Which is to say anywhere but here.”

“We have work to do,” Clara said gently. “Winters will make her rounds soon.”

So Lora dried her eyes, thanked Silverton, and entered the bath. “Mirror, sink, commode, and floor.” That was the sequence Clara insisted on, and Lora went to work. So it wasn’t until fifteen minutes later, while down on her knees scrubbing the floor, that Lora found the silver cufflink. There were no initials on it—so whom did the piece of jewelry belong to? Was Silverton lying about Voss?

As Lora placed the cufflink on the shelf under the mirror, she was reminded of what Clara had told her. “Forget everything you see.” That, Lora decided, was good advice.

Once Silverton’s suite was done, they moved to the end of the hall. Clara knocked and, having received no reply, opened one of the double doors. The master suite occupied the full width of the house and was decorated in a masculine style. Hunting trophies hung on the walls, animal skins were strewn on the floors, and a gun safe occupied one corner.

But the item that really captured Lora’s interest was the large oil painting that hung over the fireplace. The subjects were a man Lora had never seen before and a woman she recognized as a younger version of Mrs. Voss. She was perched on the arm of a large chair next to a handsome man with thick hair, icy blue eyes, and chiseled features.

Lora’s reverie came to an end as a long, thin cane whirred through the air and Lora felt a searing pain across the tops of her shoulders. She stumbled and turned to face her attacker. “Get to work!” Winters ordered irritably. “Clara? Where are you? Get out here.”

Clara emerged from the bathroom, only to receive a flurry of blows. “I told you,” Winters said angrily. “I told you it was your job to watch the new bitch! Fail me again and I’ll have the skin off you.”

Then Winters left. Lora was devastated. “Clara… I’m so sorry. I was looking at the painting and she came up behind me.”

There was an angry welt on one of Clara’s otherwise flawless cheeks. Her fingers went to it and she flinched. “We’d better get to work.”

Lora could feel the sudden coolness and cursed her carelessness. She had learned one thing, though… and that was how quiet the fat woman could be.

After they finished the master bedroom, the girls returned to the entry hall. And it was there, while mopping the floor, that Lora heard a commotion out front. Orders were shouted, the door opened, and a man in western clothing entered the house. A footman said, “Welcome home, master,” and was ignored. Two men followed Voss into the office, the second being Mr. Trenton. It was the first time Lora had seen the food lord, which made the moment notable.

The rest of the day passed slowly, and when it came to an end, Lora was glad to slip into bed. Then, with the covers pulled up over her head, she could think about Miss Silverton and the message from her father. She sobbed and hoped no one would hear.

Once the training period was over, Clara was assigned to the sewing center, a job that represented a step up, and Lora was left to do the cleaning alone. The work was hard but the monotony was even worse. So she developed a routine, let habit take over, and sang to herself. The one bright spot in each day was the opportunity to spend a few minutes with Miss Silverton. And for her part, the other slave seemed to welcome such interactions, although it was easy to see that a great sadness hung over her.

Was that sadness any greater than Lora’s? Lora knew it wasn’t, but for some reason Miss Silverton’s emotional well-being seemed to be more important than her own. Perhaps that was a function of the other woman’s kindness, her beauty, and the aura of mystery that surrounded her. Whatever it was transmitted itself to everyone who came into contact with her. Everyone except Voss, that is… He kept her like a bird in a cage.

A number of days passed. Five. Or was it six? It was hard to keep track. In any case, Lora had finished cleaning Miss Silverton’s suite and was about to leave, when the other woman asked for some fresh flowers. Getting flowers wasn’t part of Lora’s official duties. And it wasn’t clear if the other slave could order her to do so. But Lora wanted to please Miss Silverton, and a chance to visit the garden was too good to resist.

So Lora said, “Yes,” placed her tools in a utility closet, and left the mansion through the back door. It was a beautiful day and Lora gloried in the feel of sunshine on her face, the pungent odors all around, and the sweep of the achingly beautiful blue sky.

The garden was located on the south side of the house and dedicated mostly to growing herbs, vegetables not cultivated on Voss’s farms, and flowers for the mansion. After rounding the corner of the house, Lora spotted Mr. Elkins, the overseer in charge of the grounds. He listened to her request, nodded, and went to cut the flowers himself, still another indication of the way people felt about Miss Silverton.

So Lora was standing there, waiting for the flowers, when a six-man work party appeared. They were dressed in grubby clothes and accompanied by an overseer Lora didn’t know. She heard chains rattle as they approached and began to pass by. Then, as one of the men looked her way, Lora experienced a moment of shock. It was Larry Pruett! The same Larry Pruett who had been in charge of the dairy operation at the commune and was constantly trying to touch her. The last time Lora had seen the man, he’d been running for his life. And now she knew his fate.

As their eyes made contact, Pruett opened his mouth. He yelled “Lora!” flinched as the tip of a whip caught his right ear, and brought a hand up to cup it. Then Elkins was there with flowers in hand, the work party disappeared, and the incident was over.

Lora thanked the overseer on behalf of Miss Silverton and beat a hasty retreat. She had work to do, and the encounter with Pruett left her feeling flustered. That was silly, of course, since the same rules that controlled her life controlled his and would keep him away from her. Still running into Pruett was unsettling somehow, and even Miss Silverton’s effusive thanks weren’t sufficient to make her feel better.

The next two days passed without incident. Then, on the morning of the third day, they came for her. She was cleaning one of the guest rooms when the door opened and a man entered. A second merc stood in the hall. “Are you Lora Larsy?”

“Y-y-yes, master.”

“Come with me… Lord Voss wants to speak with you.”

Lord Voss? Lora couldn’t imagine why Voss would want to speak with her. Had she done something wrong? No, she couldn’t think of anything. And that made the summons even more frightening.

The mercenaries escorted her down the main staircase to the entry area and from there into Voss’s office. The food lord was present, as was Mr. Trenton and a raggedy-looking Larry Pruett. Voss was seated behind a large desk, and his piercing blue eyes seemed to look right through her. He nodded to Pruett. “Do you know this man?”

Lora could feel some sort of trap closing around her but didn’t know what it was. “Y-y-yes, master.”

“Good. Now, Pruett claims that you belonged to the same commune that he did before the Crusaders raided it. And that’s how you wound up here. Correct?”

Lora was mystified. Why would Voss care? There was no way to know. “Y-y-yes, master.”

“But before that, before you arrived at the commune, you were part of another community. Something called the Sanctuary. A place that, according to Pruett here, houses a secret depository of seeds. Precious seeds representing plant species from all over the world. In fact, he claims the Sanctuary is an underground city powered by a nuclear reactor. Is that true?”

Lora felt something verging on panic. Pruett knew about the Sanctuary because the leavers had spoken of it when they used the seeds to buy a place in the commune. Now she found herself in the peculiar position of having to decide the fate of people who hated her. People like Matt, Becky, and Kristy. But there were others too… Innocents like Cory, Mr. Wilkes, and Mrs. Olson. If she said yes, Voss would go to the Sanctuary, where he would enslave or kill the entire population. So there was only one thing she could say. “No.”

A thunderous look appeared on Voss’s face. “No? So Pruett is lying?”

That was when Pruett produced a horrible screeching sound and took two steps forward. A merc drew his revolver with lightning speed and fired. A .45-caliber bullet struck the back of Pruett’s left leg and pulverized his knee joint. He screamed, fell, and clutched the wound. “Oh, my God… Oh, my God… It hurts!”

“Yes, I’ll bet it does,” Voss said as he circled the desk. “Now, tell me the truth. Does the Sanctuary exist?”

“Yes!” Pruett insisted. “She’s lying. Please… help me.”

“I will,” Voss promised as he pulled the hammer of his pistol back. Lora closed her eyes, heard a loud boom, and opened them. Pruett was dead.

Voss lowered the .45 and turned to look at her. “Listen carefully… You could be an overseer. You could live a life of luxury. All you have to do is tell me where the Sanctuary is.”

A layer of gun smoke hung in the air. Lora could taste it. She struggled to swallow the lump in her throat. “No.”

“Throw her into the hole,” Voss ordered. “Oh, and send a message to Mrs. Winters… We’re going to need a maid over here. There’s blood on the floor.”

Chapter Eleven

Near Afton, Wyoming, USA

Most of the gang were still asleep when Tre rolled out of bed, got dressed, and went looking for something to eat. Spartan though the hideout was, it felt good to be back, especially with about four tons of newly acquired weaponry stashed deep in the main mine shaft.

Now, looking back on it, Tre figured that finding the container had been the easy part. Then came the task of finding and buying the animals and wagons required to move eight tons of arms and equipment, a process that took the better part of two weeks. But that wasn’t all. Once under way, Crow’s bandits had to protect their wealth from other bandits—like the band of wild men who attacked the wagon train west of Soda Springs.

The men were mounted on good horses and naked to their waists, so as to show off the intricate tattoos that covered their arms and torsos. There was nothing subtle about the attack. Just wild screams followed by an all-out charge as groups of riders tried to surround individual wagons and cut them off from the rest.

Primitive though the strategy was, it might have worked had it not been for the fact that Crow’s gang was better armed. And they had learned something from the defeat in they’d suffered weeks earlier. Two of the wagons were armed with light machine guns, and once the tarps were removed, the wild men began to die. Horses screamed as they went down. Some of the riders jumped free but were torn apart as they tried to run. “Kill them!” Crow shouted. “Kill them or they will bring more bandits down on us.”

Horrible though it was, everyone knew Crow was correct. So Tre, Knife, and the scouts rode the fugitives down. Finally, when the bloody business was finished, all the attackers were dead. It would have been nice to bury the bodies and thereby erase all signs that a battle had taken place, but they lacked the time and manpower necessary to do so.

The final leg of the journey was arduous as well. After crossing the Caribou Mountains at night, they’d had to hide the cargo for three days while selling the wagons and buying mules. Once that task was accomplished, they still had to complete the trip to the mine, a nerve-wracking journey that left everyone exhausted.

That’s why Hog was the only other person present as Tre entered the so-called cafeteria. “Morning,” the cook said cheerfully. “The larder’s kinda low until we buy more food. But I can offer you some fresh cornbread and hot water for tea.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Tre replied. “Thank you.” After collecting his breakfast, Tre sat down at one of the wooden tables and opened a copy of The Three Musketeers.

Crow arrived three minutes later. That was a surprise since he rarely made an appearance before ten o’clock. His hair was tousled and the bandit leader was dressed in a tattered bathrobe and cowboy boots. “There you are,” Crow said as he dropped onto a chair. Then, having eyed the book, he nodded. “My favorite character is Aramis.”

“I like d’Artagnan,” Tre replied.

“Of course you do,” Crow said indulgently. “But you’ll have to put him on hold.”

“Why?”

“Remember the plan? The one you never stop needling me about?”

“Yes.”

“Now we have the weapons required to fight Voss. What we lack is the manpower. And for an effort like ours, we can’t hire people. Not if we want real change.”

“So we’ll recruit people.”

“That could work,” Crow agreed. “But it would take a lot of time. So I have something else in mind. An approach that will strike a blow for freedom, build our reputation, and provide us with the army we need.”

Tre slipped a scrap of paper into the book and put it down. If Crow was going to get up off his butt, that was a good thing. “Okay, what’s the plan?”

“There’s a tech lord named Jeremy Kimble,” Crow replied. “He runs a garbage mine in what used to be Idaho Falls. And from what I hear it’s very profitable. So much so that he has a hundreds of slaves digging the stuff out of the ground while more people work to clean and refurbish anything that still has value.”

“So?”

“So we could raid the place, free the slaves, and turn some of them into soldiers.”

Tre looked at Crow with a renewed sense of respect. “That’s why you hid half the weapons on the west side of the Caribou Mountains. Closer to Idaho Falls.”

Crow nodded. “That and the fact that it would be stupid to keep our arsenal in one place.”

“Okay,” Tre said. “That makes sense. We free and arm them. When do we leave?”

“Not so fast,” Crow replied. “Kimble will have plenty of mercs. You can count on that. And remember… Our army, if any, is off in the future. We’ll be outnumbered when we attack. Yes, our weapons will help to even the odds, but it will still be difficult.”

Crow smiled. “Unless the slaves revolt at the same time we attack, that is… Then things will be different. That would require putting someone on the inside, of course. A person who could lead the revolt.”

Tre looked around and realized that Hog was out of earshot and had been throughout. Crow had chosen to speak solely to him. Why? The answer scared him. “Why me?” Tre demanded. “Are you trying to get me killed?”

“No,” Crow replied gravely. “You’re my conscience. I need you. But you’re also the best man for the job. You’re smart, tech savvy, and people like you. Besides, I plan to send Knife as well. It will be his job to keep you alive.”

Tre noticed the use of the word “man” and wondered if Crow was pandering. If so, there was no sign of it in his eyes. “And the rest of the gang?”

“I’ll tell them when they need to know.”

Tre nodded. The security measure made sense.

“I’ll give you four weeks,” Crow said. “Then we’ll attack. Finish your breakfast, though… You’re going to need your strength..”

Tre, Knife, and Smoke left the next morning. The plan was for the men to leave their good weapons with Smoke once they reached the outskirts of Idaho Falls. Her job was to watch the mining operation from the outside and gather as much information as she could, intel she would pass to Crow when the rest of the gang arrived.

After the threesome made their way down out of the mountains, they followed Highway 89 north to Alpine, where they turned onto Highway 26 westbound. During the next couple of days they passed through Palisades, Irwin, and Swan Valley all without incident. Except for some grenades, or “equalizers,” as Smoke referred to them, they weren’t carrying military-grade weapons, because to do so might attract the wrong sort of attention—which was to say any attention whatsoever.

But they were still well armed, and that plus the way they carried themselves was sufficient to deter the drifters, highwaymen, and part-time bandits who made a living by preying on the weak. They arrived on the outskirts of Idaho Falls around noon on the third day. It wasn’t pretty. A firestorm had consumed the city at some point during the disastrous civil war. The result of a bombing mission, perhaps. Tre knew that both sides of the conflict had been guilty of targeting population centers. Not that it made any difference. What was, was.

That didn’t mean the city was empty of human life. Tre suspected that there were plenty of people living in the ruins, a fact that would make the next few weeks challenging for Smoke. But the scout was very good at what she did—and as hard to capture as the substance she was named for.

Unfortunately there was no way to hide and feed the horses that Tre and Knife were riding—which was why second-rate mounts had been chosen for the trip. So once a hiding place had been chosen and Smoke’s supplies were offloaded, Tre and Knife said good-bye and rode down Highway 26. The sky was gray, it was raining, and water was dripping off the brim of Tre’s hat. He was looking for the Hemmert Avenue exit, and as luck would have it, the lopsided sign could still be read. The moment they turned off the freeway, they were in Kimble’s territory—a fact that quickly became evident.

The techies came swarming up out of basements, storm drains, and bomb craters. There were dozens of them, all clad in soiled coveralls and wearing half-mask respirators. It was possible to see their eyes but not their noses or mouths as they closed in. “Stop!” one of them ordered, his voice partially muffled. “Put your hands up.”

Tre pulled back on the reins, looped them around the saddle horn, and raised his hands. Knife did likewise. That was the signal for the strange-looking soldiers to close in. They took control of the horses, confiscated the sacrificial third-rate rifles that both men were carrying, and ordered the prisoners to dismount. Tre had been expecting the trap, had knowingly walked into it, but was frightened nevertheless. He let that show. “Please,” he said, “don’t hurt us.”

“Don’t worry, boyo,” a voice said as Tre’s feet hit the ground. “We’ll be real gentle. Ain’t that right, Jack?”

“Oh, yeah,” a burly figure replied. “We’ll tuck you in every night.” That produced a chorus of guffaws.

“Put your hands on top of your head,” a third techie said. “Let’s see what you’re hiding.”

Rough hands patted both men down and located their knives. Tre was carrying a few matches, a snare, and a toy compass. That was all. “The rifles are worthless,” one of the men concluded. “They have sixteen rounds of ammo between them, and the paring knives are a joke. Not much of a haul.”

“Plus the horses,” a hopeful voice said.

“We can eat ‘em,” the techie behind Tre put in. “That’s all they’re good for.” And with that, he gave Tre a shove. “Start walkin’, boyo… The pit boss is waitin’ to see you.”

Tre stumbled forward. One boot landed in a puddle and water splashed. Everything seemed hyper-real: the raindrops on his face, the cloud of seagulls that rose from somewhere up ahead, and the sickly sweet smell of rotting garbage.

They came to a cyclone fence and a gate that swung open to let them pass. Tre saw rows of truck trailers off to his right and wondered what they were for. But his thoughts were cut short when one of the men shoved a gun barrel into his back.

The path was paved with objects that had been smashed down into the mud to form a mosaic of metal, plastic, and glass. Piles of reclaimed objects could be seen all around. Tre saw hills made out of electric toasters, metal chairs, and plastic toys. The latter came in a rainbow of primary colors and had survived more than fifty years in the ground without any signs of decay.

Then came an open area, more screaming gulls, and a sight unlike anything Tre had seen before. The pit was circular, thousands of yards across, and hundreds of feet deep. A blue flame was burning at the center of the open pit mine. It wavered as a breeze struck it, and Tre knew he was looking at methane gas being vented from deep below.

Farther out, around the perimeter of the pit, tiny humans could be seen. They were hard at work digging objects out of the matrix. Other slaves, men with baskets of junk on their backs, formed a line that snaked up the spiral road to a point off to Tre’s left. As they arrived, other people rushed forward to grab their baskets and carry them to a screening table. It was a vast enterprise, and Tre was impressed. “That’s far enough,” a techie said, and jerked Tre to a stop. “Wait here.”

So they stood in the pouring rain, taking all of it in, until a man without a respirator rounded a pile of scrap metal and limped their way. Damp hair grew in patches on his scabrous scalp, and an open sore was visible high on his left cheek. But perhaps the most noticeable thing about his appearance was the prosthetic leg strapped to his right thigh. There was no way to know for sure, but Tre figured that it, too, had been recovered from the dump.

“I’m the pit boss,” the man said. “Welcome to Kimble Enterprises. At least you look healthy. Not like the animated skeletons they bring me most of the time. In fact, given a bit of luck, you could last five or six months.”

At that point, the pit boss looked expectant, as if his cheerful assessment might be sufficient to produce some smiles, but none were forthcoming. “Okay,” the pit boss continued. “Our work force consists of diggers, sorters, haulers, and techs. Most people start out as diggers, and you’re most people, so that’s what you’re gonna do. There’s a lot of ways to get killed in the pit—so pay attention to what the other scabs tell you. Take ‘em away.”

As Tre and Knife were led down the spiral road, heavily laden haulers were traveling in the opposite direction with loads of artifacts on their backs. Most of the items were carried in baskets, but some were tied to pack boards. And the people hauling these loads were so tired, or so beaten down, that none bothered to look at the newcomers. Could they be transformed into an army? Not based on appearances. Tre felt his spirits sink further.

As the pit walls rose around them, plastic bags could be seen hanging like limp handkerchiefs from the dirt walls. The matrix around them consisted of partially visible bits and pieces, which, if excavated, might turn out to be something useful: a sled or a door or any of thousands of other items. Anything and everything that a throwaway society had chosen to discard because it cost less to buy something new than to repair an item that was broken. And for Tre, that was tantamount to a crime because it was his belief that whatever could be repaired should be.

Once at the bottom of the hole, Tre and Knife were given over to a section boss who was standing on a pair of thirty-inch-high drywall stilts. That gave him the techie a height advantage that allowed him to see what all his slaves were doing at any given moment. The boss was wearing a bush hat, a water-slicked poncho, and knee-length cutoffs. “My name is Sir,” he said importantly. “And you will do what I say. If you fail to do so, the penalty is death—and if you succeed, the reward is death. The difference being that the first will be more painful than the second. Do we understand each other?”

Both men mumbled, “Yes, sir.”

“Good. Off to my left you will find a pile of picks. Choose one and use it on the matrix. Our goal is to recover objects, repair them if necessary, and sell them. So if you damage an artifact, I will administer a unit of pain. Do we understand each other?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Excellent. Select a pick and go to work on the section of wall between the red flags. That is my section, which is to say the best section of the mine, so treat it with respect. Go.”

Tre traded sidelong glances with Knife as they made their way over to the pile of picks. They came in all sorts of styles and sizes. Tre assumed that most of the tools had been salvaged from the dump. He chose one that had what looked like a new handle. Then, conscious of the fact that Sir was watching, he followed Knife to the wall. Other slaves, about a hundred in all, were working in the area between the red flags. And some had things to say.

“All right. Some new meat…”

“Welcome to hell.”

And the ever popular, “Where you from?”

Tre figured the best thing to do was keep his mouth shut and get to work. So he watched to see how the others attacked the wall, saw that most of them hit high, and understood why. Were the slaves to undercut the wall, it would cave in on them. So the key was to spot a likely-looking object, sink the pointy end of the pick into the space between it and a neighboring item, and loosen both. Then, after a sufficient number of blows, he could pull the artifact loose. With that accomplished, it was time to throw the trophy toward the center of the pit, where the sorters would deal with it. Most of the sorters were women and children, all of whom were soaked to the skin and ankle deep in mud.

The work was interesting at first because Tre had never done it before. But it wasn’t long before the novelty wore off and the pick grew heavier. So time seemed to slow, and Tre was thinking about the cold rain when a bullet hit a scab working a few feet away. Blood splattered the side of Tre’s face as the body fell. The report was like an afterthought as a burst of maniacal laughter came over the speakers mounted all around the pit. “Oops,” the pit boss said. “The rifle was loaded. Silly me.” More laughter followed.

Tre looked up from the body to where another slave was standing. Their eyes met. “One per day,” the other man said. “At random. To keep us worried.”

Tre peered up through the rain. He couldn’t see the pit boss, but he could imagine the ugly piece of crap. What happened next was pure improvisation. “The Crow will kill him.”

The man frowned. “What?”

“Haven’t you heard? The Crow is coming,” Tre said mysteriously. “And he’s going to free us. So we can fight evil. Pass the word.”

And with that he turned away. Meanwhile, on orders from Sir, a team of four children had taken the body under tow and were dragging it toward the flickering methane torch.

What Tre estimated to be another hour passed before the sun descended below the edge of the crater and a klaxon sounded. That was the signal for the diggers to return their pickaxes, grab a basket loaded with artifacts, and haul it upward. Now that’s efficient, Tre thought. The diggers have to climb up out of the pit, so make the trip pay.

Once Tre and Knife reached the top and got rid of their baskets, they followed the stream of humanity through a maze of sorting tables to a primitive eating area. It was covered with a metal roof but had no walls. That meant it would be freezing cold during the winter.

The slaves were funneled past a table where hundreds of mismatched plates were stacked. The one Tre took was decorated with pictures of red peppers and a glob of dried food. He got most of it off with a ragged thumbnail.

Then it was on to waist-high metal troughs. Food, which had been transported in steaming wheelbarrows, was literally shoveled into the troughs from one side while the slaves passed down the other. There were no utensils, so the only way to obtain some food was to scoop it up with the plate. As Tre watched those in line ahead of him, he saw that some were very skilled at it. By using both hands and sliding their plates in under the gooey mess, they were able to maximize the size of their serving.

So Tre followed suit, was satisfied with the results, and followed Knife into an area furnished with crudely constructed wooden tables and matching benches. Then, having secured seats in a far corner of the area, Tre had the first opportunity to inspect the meal. He decided that the stuff on his plate could best be described as a sort of porridge. Eighty percent of it was oatmeal. But chunks of unidentifiable meat had been added, along with pieces of carrot, onion, and a scattering of peas, all of which tasted better than he thought possible. Maybe that was because he was so hungry. Having licked the plate clean, Tre went to work on his fingers. That was when Knife spoke. “So here we are.”

“Yeah, lucky us.”

“What now?”

Knife was older than Tre, so it felt strange to be in charge. But that was the way Tre wanted it. And if Knife had any qualms about the situation, he hid them well. “I stumbled onto something,” Tre said. “A technique we can use to stir things up.”

Knife listened as Tre told him about the conversation with the other digger. “So,” he added, “let’s talk Crow up. He’s all knowing, all seeing, and on the way. But here’s the key… We aren’t the source of this stuff. We heard it from someone else. Make sense?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Knife responded levelly. “I’ll talk it up.”

After returning their plates, they made it a point to mingle with the other prisoners. During one conversation, Tre asked another slave if the stories about Crow were true. That generated the inevitable response, “Who’s Crow?”

Tre replied that Crow was a freedom fighter, a man dedicated to freeing slaves and restoring the old constitution. It was impossible to know if the man would pass it along to others, or, if he did, how the story would evolve. All Tre could do was try.

Thirty minutes later, the klaxon sounded once more and a gate opened. That was the signal for the slaves to leave the eating enclosure and spill out into the area Tre had seen earlier. Judging from the barely visible yellow lines, it had been a parking lot once, and as people began to enter them, it became obvious that the long, narrow truck trailers had been converted into makeshift barracks.

Tre paused to look around. Surely someone was in control. There were techies up in the guard towers. But, while they were watching, there was no effort to direct traffic. So Tre stopped a man. “Excuse me… I’m new here. How does one know which trailer to sleep in?”

“You don’t,” the man answered succinctly. “Some people like to stay in the same trailer every night. Others prefer to rotate. And that’s fine, assuming people are willing to take them in. It can be difficult, though. Lots of trailers are open to members only.”

“Can I sleep outside?”

“Yes, but you wouldn’t want to. They turn the dogs loose at night.” And with that the man turned away.

It seemed that Kimble preferred to abrogate control wherever he could. The slaves weren’t wearing numbers, didn’t eat in shifts, and were free to sleep in any trailer willing to take them. But when dawn came they would still be slaves. It was an interesting system. “Come on,” Knife said. “We need a place to sleep.”

“Yeah, but I’m going to take a pee first and brush my teeth,” Tre replied. He couldn’t brush his teeth. Not really. But he could scrub them with a finger, which he did at one of the communal sinks. Then he followed Knife from trailer to trailer. The slaves in the third one agreed to take them in.

The interior was lit by a single lightbulb. And that meant Kimble had a source of electricity. The glow illuminated a long rectangular space with a narrow aisle down the center. It was six bunk beds long, which meant the trailer could house twenty-four people. Each bed was equipped with a thin pallet, a lumpy pillow, and two blankets. Were they infested with bedbugs? Tre figured they were but had no way to avoid them. Why didn’t the techies insist on a minimal level of cleanliness? As Tre rolled into an upper bunk, the pit boss’s words came back to him. “Given a bit of luck, you could last five or six months.”

That was the key, Tre decided. Rather than spend gold to care for his slaves, Kimble preferred to use and then dispose of them, much like the artifacts being mined from the dump.

It was a very different approach from the one Voss favored. Which economic model was superior? That would depend on the supply of slaves. When they were plentiful, and therefore cheap, Kimble would come out ahead. But when slaves were hard to come by, Voss would profit. That was what Tre was thinking about when sleep pulled him down.

The rain stopped during the night, a klaxon was heard, and the slaves had no choice but to roll out of their bunks. Then it was time to visit one of the latrines and shuffle off to breakfast. It was, Tre discovered, exactly like the dinner he had eaten the evening before. But the mixture was hot, filling, and reasonably nutritious.

Once the meal was over, Tre and Knife followed the rest down the spiral road to the bottom of the pit. The methane flame made a roaring sound as they selected their picks and went to work. Sir was a constant presence. And anytime he felt one of the slaves was slacking, his twelve-foot-long bullwhip would reach out to nip a neck, arm, or leg. That was nasty, but even worse was the knowledge that the pit boss was going to murder someone that day.

There were other hazards as well. Just before what Tre estimated to be noon, the people in the green sector broke into a pocket of gas. It had a rotten egg smell and was clearly flammable, because something set it off. The explosion killed two slaves.

Their fire-blackened bodies were still in the process of being hauled away when the survivors were forced to resume working. “It’s over,” one of the techies told them. “Get back to work.”

Later, at about one or two o’clock, Tre heard the gunshot that everyone had been waiting for. This time it was one of the sorters, a sickly girl of ten or twelve who had been coughing up blood. That was when Tre realized the truth. In addition to intimidating the slaves, the pit boss was culling the herd, killing those who were too sick to be effective. That meant it was important to look strong no matter what the truth of the matter might be.

The following day was punctuated by a cave-in that claimed a life in the yellow sector, and Tre’s team uncovered a cluster of fifty-gallon drums. They were oozing black goo, some of which was turning orange by the time a smoke-spewing tractor trundled down the spiral road and moved in to remove the containers.

But as the days passed, they began to blur and lost their individual identities, so that murders, explosions, and cave-ins no longer seemed unusual. Meanwhile, both Tre and Knife continued to spread rumors, or tried to, although it was difficult to tell if they were making progress.

After what might have been three weeks, Tre was working to recover a toaster oven when a rusty canister of spray paint came loose. Judging from the weight of it, the container was at least half-full, so Tre tucked the cylinder into the waistband of his pants and spent the rest of the day trying to keep it there.

Later, as the slaves were lining up for dinner, Tre found a dead spot. A place where the guards up in the towers couldn’t see him. That was when he spray-painted the words “Crow is coming” on a wall. There was no such thing as privacy, so other slaves saw him do it, and when one of them asked about Crow, Tre had a ready answer. “Crow is justice. Crow is freedom. Be ready.” During the days that followed, Tre continued to surreptiously spray paint walls and floors until the canister was empty.

Then came the moment he’d been waiting for, when a man with long, stringy hair confronted him in the pit. “Watch for the Crow,” the man said. “He’s a-coming, and when he gets here, he’ll be riding a horse that snorts fire.”

Tre battled to keep a straight face. “That’s right, brother. Watch the sky. And when Crow arrives, attack the guards.”

Tre returned to work after that and was still at it when the man with the stringy hair returned ten minutes later. He was accompanied by two techies. Both had guns drawn. “That’s the one,” Stringy Hair said as he pointed a filthy finger at Tre. “Take him into custody.”

That was the moment when Tre realized that the whisper campaign was not only working—but working so well that the people in charge knew about it. He made a conscious decision not to look at Knife. The other man was powerless to help him. All he could do was play dumb and hope for the best. “Why?” he demanded. “What did I do?”

None of the techies bothered to answer. They used a combination of shoves and proddings to direct him up the spiral road and past the shed where the pit boss sat on a stool. They ordered Tre to bear right. A path took them away from the pit and toward a concrete building. Guards stood to either side of the front doors and watched impassively as Stringy Hair led Tre inside.

Tre had never seen anything like the inside of the building. The lobby was two stories high and decorated with paintings, sculptures, and well-cared-for plants. Soft music filled the air and the concrete floor had been buffed to a soft glow. Stringy Hair paused to let the others catch up with him before leading them up a broad flight of stairs to the floor above. A hallway led through a gallery of black-and-white photos to a pair of wooden doors. Guards stood to either side of them, and one raised a hand.

That brought the entire group to a halt. Tre’s heart was beating like a trip-hammer by then, his palms were damp, and he felt light-headed. Stick to your story, Tre thought. That’s your only chance.

The waiting came to an end as the doors opened to allow a well-dressed woman to leave. She seemed to look through Tre as if he wasn’t there. One of the techies gave Tre a shove, and he stumbled forward. The office was huge, and an enormous window took up most of one wall. A man was standing in front of it with his back to the room. Judging from the way his arms were positioned, he was holding a pair of binoculars. Was he looking at the pit? Yes, that made sense.

Stringy Hair brought the party to a stop, where it was forced to wait until the man turned to look at them. He had short brown hair, a small, almost feminine nose, and even features. A pair of rectangular sunglasses hid his eyes. The frames were pink, while his clothing was unrelievedly black. Gold earrings dangled from both ears and his manner was unexpectedly polite. “My name is Jeremy Kimble. And you are?”

Tre saw no reason to lie. “Tre Ocho.”

“Okay, Tre,” Kimble said evenly. “Here’s the situation… Rumors about someone or something called the Crow are circulating among the slaves. And according to Ellis here, you know what’s going on. So who is the Crow?”

Tre was frightened and allowed it to show. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t believe you,” Kimble said evenly as he placed the binoculars on the desk next to a large bolt cutter. It had red handles and appeared to be new. “You told Ellis here to watch the sky—and attack the guards. Why would you say something like that if you don’t know the answer?”

“I h-h-heard it—that’s all. From another slave.”

“Who?” Kimble wanted to know. “Who told you such things? Tell me and spare yourself a great deal of pain.”

“A man,” Tre responded. “I d-d-don’t know his name.”

Kimble held the bolt cutter up for Tre to look at. “Have you seen one of these before?”

Tre’s mouth felt dry. It was difficult to speak. “Yes, yes I have.”

“Then you know what it can do. Grab his right arm.”

Tre tried to run, but the guards were ready. And judging from the speed with which they took control of him, Tre knew they’d done it before. “Now,” Kimble said, “tell me everything you know or I will remove one of your fingers.”

Tre thought about Crow, about Freak and all the others. He wanted to tell Kimble, but if he did, his friends would ride into a trap. Then they would die and any hope of something better would die with them. He felt light-headed, promised himself that he wouldn’t scream, and gave the only answer he could. “I don’t know.”

Ellis took hold of Tre’s little finger and pulled it straight out. Kimble opened the bolt cutters and took a step forward. Tre felt metal touch his skin. “Tell me.”

“I don’t know.”

There was a momentary pressure followed by a snapping sound as the tool cut through flesh and bone. Tre screamed, and screamed again as the finger hit the floor. Then he fainted.

The next few moments were spent in blissful darkness. Then the glass of water hit his face and he felt the deep throbbing ache where the finger had been. Kimble loomed in front of him. “That’s one,” the tech lord said. “So you have nine left. Who is Crow? When is he coming?”

Tre swayed, threw up on himself, and waited to die. “I don’t know.”

Kimble stared into Tre’s eyes, shook his head, and took a step back. “He doesn’t know. He’s like the rest of them. Put a tourniquet on the stump and send him back.” And that was when Tre fainted again.

When Tre awoke, he found himself lying on the ground and staring up at the sky. His right hand was throbbing with pain, and when he brought it up into his field of vision, Tre saw that the stump had been bandaged. He was looking at it and remembering the way steel cut through bone, when Sir appeared. He was on stilts, which meant his face was a long way off. “Well, look at what we have here,” Sir said. “A slave who’s lying down on the job. Get up, scab. You have work to do.”

Tre rolled onto his knees, managed to avoid using his right hand, and tried to rise. A wave of dizziness overcame him. “So you have a boo-boo,” Sir said sarcastically. “Big deal. Stand up.”

Tre tried again, made it to his feet, and swayed uncertainly. Then he spotted the pile of picks and lurched over to it. It took all his powers of concentration to select a tool and pick it up. From there it was a long walk to the edge of the pit and a slot between Knife and a slave named Will. “It’s good to have you back,” Knife said. “What happened to your hand?”

Tre took a clumsy swing with his left hand. The pick made contact but had little effect. “They cut my little finger off.”

Will said, “My God, why?“

“They wanted to know about Crow.”

“Did you tell them?”

Tre remembered the man named Ellis. Was Will a spy too? There was no way to know, so he answered accordingly. “No, I don’t know anything, so how could I?” Will nodded and returned to work.

Tre did his best. And the knowledge that the pit boss was constantly scanning the area looking for people to cull helped to motivate him. But his hand ached and Tre was worried about the possibility of infection, so he didn’t want to let it get dirty. That made the work more difficult. So he was grateful when the klaxon sounded.

The basket of artifacts felt unusually heavy as Tre carried it up the road to the surface. Once that chore was accomplished and Tre had his plate, Knife took care of loading it up. Then they went off to sit with their backs to a cyclone fence. It was difficult to eat left-handed but Tre managed to do so. And much to his surprise, he was hungry. Once they were finished, Knife pulled a rusty can out of a pocket. “I have something for you.”

“Yeah? What is it?”

Knife’s reading skills were limited, but he could puzzle out words. He pointed to the label. Tre saw the letters “T-U-R-P-E-N-T.” The rest was illegible. “Turpentine? What am I supposed to do with that?”

“Pour it on the bandage. Let it soak into the wound. That’s what Bones does. It kills the bugs. The ones that are too small to see.”

“The bacteria,” Tre said.

“Yeah. The bacteria.”

Tre was unaware of turpentine’s antiseptic properties but knew an infection could kill him. And the garbage mine was bound to be lousy with every type of bug known to man. So he nodded. “Pour it on.”

Knife had trouble getting the cap off. Once it came loose, he looked Tre in the eye. “This is going to hurt.”

“A lot?”

“As much as losing the finger.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah.”

“Okay,” Tre said as he braced himself. “Do it.”

Knife poured a generous dollop of the strong-smelling brew onto the dressing—and Tre uttered a barely muffled scream. Those seated close enough to hear looked but weren’t surprised. Rough-and-ready medical treatments were the only kind they had access to. It took the better part of five minutes for Tre to recover from the burning pain. Once he did, Knife was all business. “Do you know what day this is?”

Tre’s mind was on other things. He shook his head. “Today is the day before the attack,” Knife told him. “Tomorrow night. That’s when the gang will attack.”

Tre knew Knife was right and felt a sudden sense of concern. “So you think the other slaves will revolt?”

“I don’t have the foggiest idea,” Knife replied. “But we have to assume that they will. So we’ll have to leave our trailer, make a lot of noise, and try to lead them. It’s asking a lot, but I’m going to need your help.”

Tre’s hand was throbbing, but he nodded. “I’ll do my best. And if the others follow, I know where to lead them.”

“Where?”

“Straight to Kimble. Once we capture or kill him, the rest of this operation will crumble.”

The next day seemed to crawl by. Tre worked as hard as he could on the theory that the pit boss was watching from above. His hand continued to ache, but not as badly as before, and there were no signs of infection.

Finally, for what Tre hoped would be the last time, he entered the usual trailer. Knife had taken charge of the next phase, and Tre was happy to let him do so. Neither one of them had a watch, so they couldn’t be sure when the attack would come. All they could do was lie in their bunks and wait for the mortar bombardment to begin. But what if it didn’t begin? What if something prevented the gang from attacking? What if Crow left them to rot? He wouldn’t do something like that, would he? The waiting was pure torture and seemed to last forever. Then Tre heard it—a muffled explosion. The attack was under way!

“That’s it!” Tre shouted as he rolled out of his bunk. “The Crow is here! He’s going to free us! Follow me.”

Knife uttered a war cry as his boots hit the floor, and Tre opened the door. Cool night air flooded into the trailer as Tre made his way down the wooden stairs to the concrete below. The tower-mounted searchlights were on, and blobs of light began to roam the compound as a much-amplified voice boomed over the speakers. “Stay in your trailers! I repeat, stay in your—” The order was cut off when one of the watchtowers took a direct hit. There was a boom followed by a series of cracking sounds. Then the top half of the tower broke free of the rest and fell. It landed with a crash. Tre grinned. Smoke had been watching the compound for weeks, so whoever had been assigned to the mortars knew what to aim for.

But that thought was washed out of Tre’s mind as he heard a chorus of bloodcurdling howls and a pack of dogs surged out of the shadows. It was a threat he had neglected to think about, to prepare for, and now they were in trouble. Or so it seemed.

But Knife hadn’t forgotten. Slivers of salvaged steel appeared in both hands, flew through the air, and found targets. Two of the animals tumbled head over heels and fell dead as more missiles sought flesh. Tre heard a series of yelps as they hit and more dogs went down. The whole thing took place with such rapidity that only one dog was able to complete the attack. It leapt up into the air and was flying toward Knife when he stepped to one side and made a motion with his right hand. The animal’s forward motion did all the work for him. The resulting laceration was two inches deep and a foot long.

The beast hit the ground, rolled, and came to its feet. Blood ran freely as it crept forward and produced a throaty growl. Lips were pulled back to reveal rows of white teeth, but Knife was ready. “Here, doggy, “ he said, as he brandished a knife. “Come to Poppa.”

But before the dog could obey, Tre brought a three-foot-long section of rebar down on the animal’s head. The plan was to use it on techies, but the dog was a good target too. The impact produced a sickening thud. The animal collapsed. “Nice job,” Knife said as a mortar round blew out a section of fence.

“Crow!” a slave yelled. “The Crow is here!”

Tre heard the cry and knew it was time to act. So he shouted, “Let’s get Kimble!”

A dozen voices took up the cry, and as Tre began to run, others followed. Techies appeared up ahead and fired. Tre felt something nip his left arm and heard someone scream. Then he was there, striking at a guard with the steel rod and hitting the man’s head.

“Their weapons!” Knife shouted. “Take their weapons!”

Someone else had the dead techie’s rifle, so Tre took his pistol. “Gold!” Tre shouted. “Kimble has gold!”

Tre didn’t know how much gold Kimble had beyond the earrings he wore but figured the prospect of looting the tech lord’s headquarters would help motivate his fellow slaves. And he was correct. “Gold!” someone shouted, and the crowd surged forward.

As Tre led them between piles of artifacts, the pit boss appeared. He raised his rifle and fired. Something buzzed past Tre’s right ear. The pistol seemed to fire itself, and the pit boss looked surprised as the bullet struck his forehead. Tre was moving so fast by then that he was forced to step on the dead man’s chest as he kept going.

The building where Tre had been tortured was directly ahead, and guards were on the roof firing down at them. A woman stumbled and fell and a man tripped over the body as a slave fired. A techie fell back out of sight.

As the mob closed in on the building, a machine gun opened fire and cut a bloody swath through the crowd. The slaves answered with a no more than a dozen gunshots, but at least one of them was on target. The automatic weapon fell silent as a group of would-be looters surged past Tre and pushed the doors open. Their reward was a blast of shotgun fire that killed half of them.

Tre shot one of the defenders twice, saw the other fall, and waved the slaves forward. He expected to face at least two guards outside Kimble’s office, but the doors were open and the techies were nowhere to be seen. As Tre stepped into the doorway, he could see why the guards had been withdrawn. They, along with Kimble himself, were busy removing what appeared to be heavy boxes from a previously hidden storage area.

Tre raised the pistol. “Put the boxes down and place your hands on your heads.” One of the techies let go of a box and turned. That was as far as he got before a shotgun blast nearly cut him in two. A loud clacking sound could be heard as Knife prepared to fire again. But there was no need. The others did as they were told.

Kimble wasn’t wearing the pink sunglasses this time, and his eyes widened as Tre stepped forward. “So Crow exists?”

“Yes,” Crow said as he pushed his way through the crowd. “I do. Nice place you have here… especially for a dump.”

There was a moment of silence, followed by raucous cheers. An army had been born.

Chapter Twelve

Afton, Wyoming, USA

Luther Voss was angry, and for good reason. But he was determined to conceal his emotions as he entered the wood-paneled dining room. Sara Silverton was already present. She rose. And as she did, Voss couldn’t help but notice her beautiful heart-shaped face, her large, luminous eyes, and the way the black satin gown hugged her figure. He could feel her magnetism across the room and was determined to resist it. “Good evening, my dear,” Voss said. “You are, as always, a sight to behold.”

A slave was waiting to seat Voss as he took his place at the head of the table. Then it was Sara’s turn to be seated. Voss heard the soft swish of fabric and the rattle of chains as a slave appeared with a bottle of red wine from one of his vineyards. The manservant poured a small amount into the food lord’s glass and took a step back. “It’s average at best,” Voss announced after taking a sip. “But given the weather, that’s to be expected. You may pour.”

Once he was finished, the servant withdrew. “So,” Voss said as he toyed with his glass. “I learned something interesting today.”

Sara’s perfectly shaped eyebrows rose incrementally. “Such as?”

“A spy has been living in my house.” Voss thought he could see a change in Sara’s expression. It was so subtle that only a person who had taken the time to study Sara would have noticed it. But she was a truly gifted actress if nothing else, and there were no obvious signs of dismay.

“Really?” Sara inquired lightly. “Don’t tell me. Let me guess. The butler did it.”

“No,” Voss answered as he rang a silver bell. “I trusted this individual the way I would trust a brother.”

A door opened and a pair of mercenaries appeared. They were holding a bedraggled Elmer Trenton between them. His glasses were missing, one eye was swollen shut, and his face was black and blue. Sara looked at him, but Trenton’s eyes were on the floor. “What?” Voss demanded. “No wisecracks?”

“Trenton?” Sara said weakly. “A spy? That’s hard to believe.”

“Yes,” Voss agreed. “It is. But once Mrs. Winters tipped me off, things came together. Remember the eastbound caravan? The one that bandits attacked up in the mountains? I wondered how they knew the wagons were coming—and when they would arrive. But that was before I beat the crap out of Trenton here. He held out for a while… maybe three or four minutes. Then he spilled his guts. And guess what he told me? It seems you have a brother! A bandit named Crow. The same man who led the attack on the caravan. Or, put another way, you made use of Trenton to get at me.”

Sara’s face was pale, but there was a look of triumph in her eyes. “And it worked.”

“I should kill you.”

“That’s what you always say. Do it.”

“It’s tempting,” Voss replied. “But there’s a better way. Rather than put you out of your misery, I’m going to extend it. While we have dinner, these men are going to take Trenton outside and shoot him. Now, if you were the coldhearted bitch you pretend to be, that wouldn’t bother you. But you aren’t. So you’re going to remember this moment for the rest of your life. And it’s going to eat at you.”

Voss turned to the mercs. “Take him away. You know what to do.”

Trenton sought to make eye contact with Sara—as if looking for some sign that Voss was wrong, that he hadn’t been used. Sara stared at the plate in front of her. “I’m sorry, Elmer. I really am.”

Trenton’s shoulders sagged even further, and he made no attempt to resist as a merc led him out of the room. The muffled gunshot followed ten minutes later. Sara was staring at her salad. She shuddered, and Voss smiled. For some reason, the food was exceptionally good.

In spite of the satisfaction that Voss felt as a result of having identified and eliminated a traitor, the next couple of days were difficult, because despite his weakness for Sara, Trenton had been a very good business manager—so good that Voss took his services for granted. But not anymore. Now the full weight of the dead man’s responsibilities had been added to Voss’s shoulders, the latest crisis being a shutdown at the canning plant west of Afton, a problem that couldn’t have come at a worse time. The citizens of cities like Lander, Riverton, and Casper were eager to buy food before winter set in. But if Voss couldn’t preserve his produce, he wouldn’t be able to sell it.

So as Voss and a party of mercs rode north, then west, he was thinking about the situation and wishing he had a backup for Trenton. I will train two people this time, he thought, and set them against each other. As for Sara, well, time will tell. The problem is that she’s unique. The brother is an interesting development. What if I were to capture him? Sara would sing another tune then.

As Voss rode, the people on the road ahead of him hurried to pull over, merchants touched their hats, and overseers waved, all of which was to be expected. What wasn’t to be expected was the large group of slaves sitting around outside the cannery where they should have been hard at work.

A distraught overseer hurried out to meet him. Her name was Carnaby, and as Voss got down off his horse, she was already telling him about her problems. Voss listened as Carnaby led him inside the sprawling one-story structure. In truth it should have been called something other than a cannery, since canneries require cans, and nobody made them anymore. Or, if they did, it was in some other part of the country.

So glass jars were filled with beans, carrots, beets, asparagus, peas, onions, and the other vegetables his farms produced. Once the food was placed in the jars, they had to be immersed in boiling water, for up to ninety minutes in some cases. The problem was that rather than the electric power used in the past, Carnaby had been forced to rely on coal to boil the water. And coal was more difficult to work with.

So even though Voss would have preferred to be elsewhere dealing with matters of equal or even greater importance, he was forced to spend the next three hours working with Carnaby’s staff to get a recalcitrant boiler up and working again. By the time Voss mounted Odin for the ride home, he was tired and frustrated. The loss of electric power from the south was causing a multiplicity of problems, and they would have to be addressed. Soon.

A young man named Jonathan Appleby was waiting for Voss as he arrived home and entered his study. Appleby was tall, skinny, and dressed in what Voss thought of as city clothes. He had met the youth on previous occasions and knew him to be his mother’s administrative assistant. “Mrs. Voss said you might need some help,” Appleby said tactfully. “If so, I am to remain here for as long as you want me.”

Voss was anything but surprised, because even if his mother had surrendered day-to-day control of the family business to him, she had eyes and ears everywhere. Chances were that word of Trenton’s death had arrived at her house within an hour of the execution. So Appleby had been dispatched to fill the gap. Could Voss use him as one of the two assistants he planned to train? Possibly—realizing that Appleby was and would forever be linked to Voss’s mother. And that, come to think of it, could be her way of retaining some control. Regardless, Appleby would be a great help in the short run and Voss was happy to have him. “Excellent. Have a seat… I’ll try to bring you up to speed.”

“Thank you, sir,” the young man said politely. “But I took the liberty of moving into Trenton’s office. And thanks to the fact that he kept excellent records, I’m cognizant of what is going on.”

Voss smiled indulgently. Appleby was conceited, pompous, and ambitious. Someone to use but keep on a short chain. “Good. I’m all ears.”

It was a direct challenge and Appleby was ready. “I have three things to report, sir. First there is the matter of the city tax. I’m pleased to say that the mayor of Afton delivered twenty-five thousand rounds of mixed ammo today. It has been sorted, spot checked, and added to your reserves in the basement storage area.”

Voss lit a cigar. “Excellent. Would you like a smoke?”

Appleby wrinkled his nose. “No, thank you.”

“So,” Voss said lazily. “What’s the second item?”

“As you know, a man named Jeremy Kimble used to run a garbage mine over in Idaho Falls.”

Used to?”

“Yes, sir. It seems that Trenton had a spy inside Kimble’s operation, and when bandits attacked, he managed to escape. Mr. Kimble’s fate is unknown.”

Voss blew a stream of blue smoke out toward the middle of the room. “What, if anything, do we know about the bandits?”

“According to Trenton’s spy, they were led by a man who calls himself the Crow. And they were well armed. That’s about it.”

Crow! You’re sure?”

Appleby looked quizzical. “Yes, sir. That’s what the spy said.”

Voss nodded. It seemed that Sara’s brother was moving up in the world. Somehow, after botching the raid on the eastbound caravan, he had taken possession of a garbage mine. That would provide the bandit with a power base if he chose to take advantage of it. And one that was only a two- or three-day ride from Afton. Suddenly Voss had reason to celebrate his decision to keep Sara alive. She might be just the thing to keep Crow at bay while Voss dealt with more pressing issues. Like the need to send food convoys to eastern markets before winter set in. “All right,” Voss said. “That’s good to know. Very good indeed. And the final item?”

“I’m told you had a slave named Lora Larsy thrown into the hole. She’s been there for days now. If she’s still alive, what should we do with her?“

The truth was that Voss had been so consumed by the Trenton situation that Larsy had slipped his mind. What else had he forgotten? The possibility scared him. Focus, Voss told himself. Think about the seed vault. If such a place really exists, it would be very valuable indeed. Not just the seeds, but the nuclear power plant and the people who know how to run it. Can they duplicate the reactor? And construct one in Afton? That’s the real prize. But it wouldn’t do to reveal his plans to Appleton. Not yet anyway. “Oh, her,” Voss said dismissively. “Yes, she’s been in the hole long enough. Have someone check on her. If she’s alive, let me know.”

Appleby said, “Yes, sir,” and left. Voss felt a growing sense of suspense while the young man was gone and pretended to read a crop report as Appleby reentered the room. “She’s alive, sir. But hungry, not to mention filthy.”

“All right,” Voss said as he put the report on his desk. “Have someone feed and hose her down. I will speak with her shortly. In the meantime, send for Mrs. Winters.”

A good fifteen minutes passed before Voss heard a knock on the door. He said, “Come,” and watched Winters waddle into the room. The overseer was one of the most repugnant creatures he had ever seen. It wasn’t her size so much as the doughy face, the piggy eyes, and the excessively servile manner. She curtsied in front of his desk. “You sent for me, lord?”

Voss forced a smile. “Yes, I did… You may recall that I had a member of your staff thrown into the hole.”

“That would be the Larsy bitch,” Winters said caustically. “If anyone deserved it, she did.”

“Exactly,” Voss agreed smoothly. “But as it happens, she may be in possession of some important information. I’ll be speaking with her soon, and if she proves to be recalcitrant, I would like to have some leverage.”

“Recal— what, sir?”

“Difficult. If she’s difficult.”

“Yes, sir. I take your meaning. Clara, sir. She likes Clara.”

“Clara the maid?”

“Not anymore, sir. She’s a seamstress now.”

“Okay, fine. Have Clara brought to Mr. Appleby’s office. She can wait there.”

Such was Winters’s knowledge of current events that she didn’t ask who Appleby was. “Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”

“And Mrs. Winters…”

“Sir?”

“Keep up the good work.”

The look of pleasure on Winters’s face was plain to see as she backed out of the room. She would, Voss felt certain, continue to be an asset.

It was nearly dark outside by the time the mercs brought Lora Larsy into the study. She was clean and dressed in fresh clothes but looked emaciated, not surprising after days without food. But Voss could see something else in her face too—something he didn’t like. And that was a look of grim determination. She’s a strong one, Voss thought. But I have the means to break her. Appleton followed the mercs into the room. “Slave Larsy, sir. Per your request.”

Voss looked Larsy in the eye. Her chin trembled. “We meet again.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You know why I sent for you. All I want is the location of the habitat where you grew up. Give it to me and I will free you. Think about that… You could leave the valley and go wherever you want. Or, if you would prefer, you can stay here. So how about it? Will you tell? And make it easy on yourself?”

“No, sir.”

Voss’s fingers drummed the desk. “Okay, we’ll do this the hard way. Bring her in.”

Appleby left and returned moments later. He had Clara by the arm, and she looked scared. Voss turned his gaze to Larsy. “You know who this is.”

“Clara,” Larsy said weakly.

“That’s right,” Voss replied. “Your friend, Clara. Here’s the deal: tell me where the Sanctuary is, or one of my men will shoot Clara in the knee. The pain will be excruciating. But worse yet, she won’t be able to walk without crutches. Of course, that’s acceptable where a seamstress is concerned, since they work sitting down.”

Larsy looked at Clara, and Voss could see the look of anguish on her face. As for Clara, she was shaking like a leaf and looked like she might faint. When the words came, Voss could barely hear them. “What was that?”

“I’ll tell,” Larsy said pitifully.

“Excellent,” Voss said. “You made the right decision. Clara, you can return to your quarters. Appleby, please take Larsy here into your office and have her show you where the Sanctuary is on a map. And once you’re satisfied, let Mrs. Winters know. I’m sure she can find something for Larsy to do.”

Larsy was sobbing as Appleby led her away. The mercenaries followed. Voss glanced at the Rolex on his wrist. Dinner was half an hour away. Would he tell Sara about her brother’s exploits? Or keep her in the dark? The choice was his, and that felt good.

The next few days were busy as Voss sent a succession of food convoys east. Each one included twenty wagons, hundreds of mules, and an escort of mounted mercs.

Finally, having dispatched the last caravan, Voss returned to his home with plans to work on the trip north. According to Lora Larsy, the Sanctuary was located near Fort Vermillion, Canada. To get there and arrive with enough troops to conquer the place would be a major undertaking, especially since there was a strong possibility that he and his men would have to fight their way through the area controlled by the increasingly active Crusaders, the ever-vigilant Blackfoot Indians, and the half-crazy Blood Kin.

So with Appleby at his side, Voss was working on a list of supplies required for the expedition when he heard a commotion in the entry hall. That was followed by a knock and a formal request from a stone-faced footman. “Mr. Winthrop is here to see you, sir. He says the matter is urgent.”

Voss frowned. He wasn’t expecting a visit from Charlie Winthrop, and good news was rarely urgent. He nodded. “Send him in.”

As Charlie entered, Voss saw that the other man’s suit was soiled and his left arm was in a sling. Voss rose to circle the desk. “Charlie… what happened? Are you okay?”

“I’m too old to be okay,” Charlie replied. “Mind if I sit down?”

“No, of course not.” Then, once the visitor was seated, Voss turned to Appleby. “This is Charlie Winthrop—an old friend of mine. Please send for refreshments.”

“Especially if the refreshments include a shot of whiskey,” Charlie put in. “I’d drink my own stuff, but I know what’s in it.”

“No need to wait,” Voss said as he went over to a side table and selected a bottle. “You’ll like this. It was distilled back when my father ran Star Valley.”

Charlie accepted the glass, drank half the amber liquid in a single gulp, and smiled appreciatively. “Now, that was smooth… Your father knew what he was doing.”

“I’m glad you like it,” Voss said. “Now, what happened to your arm?”

“I was down south again,” Charlie began. “Past the town of Border. And that’s when I came across your mercs.”

In the wake of the conflict with Hashi, Voss had stationed a group of mercenaries at the southern border of what he considered to be his territory for the express purpose of keeping an eye on the techno bitch. “Yes, what about them?”

“They’re dead,” Charlie answered evenly. “All six of them.”

Voss swore. “So the Ronin attacked them.”

Charlie tossed the rest of the drink back and put the glass down. “No, sir… I don’t think so. It wasn’t like that. When I found ‘em, they’d been dead awhile. It looked like most were in their sleeping bags, or had been, before some sort of bombs went off. And the others, the ones on watch—their guns were full up. They never fired a shot.”

Voss’s mind began to race. In post apocalyptic America, nobody left loaded guns lying around. Not when ammo was so valuable. So Charlie was correct. Had the mercs been attacked by Hashi’s Ronin, they would have taken everything of value. So what did that leave? The toy airplanes! What if Hashi had located the scouts using her drones and used aircraft loaded with explosives to attack them? Yes, that would fit. But why? He looked at Charlie. “Give me the rest of it.”

“I continued south,” Charlie said, “but I didn’t get far. Once I spotted columns of smoke in the distance, I turned around. But it was too late by then. Half a dozen Ronin came after me. The dogs attacked them and that gave me a chance to cut a horse loose. They winged me and captured the wagon, but I outran them.”

“And Blue?”

Charlie looked away. “Dead.”

“I’m sorry,” Voss said, and meant it. “I can’t replace Blue. Nobody can. But Jonathan will pay you a fair price for the wagon, your horses, and the poison you call ‘medicine.’ Plus something for your time.

“Now, given the circumstances, I hope you won’t be offended if I get to work. Most of my mercs are east of here, escorting food convoys, and chances are that Hashi knew that. So she’s making her move.”

Charlie stood. “Can you stop her?”

Voss shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s holding most of the cards. Here, have some cigars.”

Charlie scooped a handful out of the open humidor and tucked them away. Then, with a nod to Voss, he allowed Appleby to lead him out into the hall. Voss swiveled around to look out at the road. Hashi was coming and wouldn’t be happy until she owned Star Valley. The war had begun.

Within hours after receiving the report from Charlie, Voss briefed a group of scouts about the possibility of remotely piloted drones and sent them down to replace those who had been killed. The next step was to gather his forces and move them south. The problem was that nearly sixty percent of the mercs were on convoy duty, and Voss couldn’t remove the rest from the valley without running the risk of a slave rebellion.

The answer was to call on the mayor of Afton for assistance. Since more than half of the people in town were directly or indirectly employed by Voss Enterprises, the response was quite gratifying. Within a matter of hours, the mayor was able to field three companies of militia totaling about three hundred men.

That was the good news. The bad news was that while all of them could shoot and ride, they hadn’t trained together, weren’t used to military-style discipline, and would constitute a tremendous drain on Voss’s resources. They would need ammo to fight, large quantities of food, and all the support services required by cavalry in the field. That included blacksmiths, farriers, and saddlers. Never mind the wagoners, cooks, and medical personnel required. All of which was made more painful by the fact that Voss expected to lose at least two-thirds of the militia to Hashi’s Ronin. Terrible casualties, to be sure, but worth it if he could use the townies to buy more time. Then, once his defenses were ready, the mercs not required in the valley would move forward to engage the Ronin. That would constitute the real battle.

Behind the militia, and marching as quickly as they could, were two hundred male slaves, all armed with farm implements. They couldn’t be expected to fight but would be invaluable when it came to preparing the necessary defenses. And finally, with guards all around, were the three wagons carrying Voss’s field gear—plus something else. Rather than leave Sara at home, where she might cause more mischief, Voss had chosen to bring her along. Her prediction, if it could be dignified as such, was that thunder would roll, a steel rain would fall, and blood would flow like a river. But who’s blood? She couldn’t or wouldn’t say.

Such were Voss’s thoughts as he led the battalion of townies down Highway 89. The merchants, tradesmen, and clerks were all in high spirits as they joked with one another, traded insults, and passed bottles of whiskey back and forth. Voss thought about putting a stop to the nonsense but decided to let it go. Most of them would be dead soon, so they might as well enjoy life while they could.

The battalion passed through a number of hamlets before arriving in the tiny town of Geneva. It marked the narrowest part of the valley and represented a natural choke point. Thankfully there were no signs that Hashi’s troops had made it that far, as two of his scouts rode out to meet him. The lead scout, a man named Kovo, touched the brim of his hat as he brought his horse to a standstill. “They’re coming this way, Mr. Voss. Hell, they’d be here now if it wasn’t for the tractors.”

“The what?”

“Caterpillar tractors. They’ve got six of them, all of which are fully operational and have armored cabs.”

Voss hurried to process that information. Somehow, someway, Hashi had been able to recondition the machines and find fuel for them. She knew about the narrow spot and planned to literally bulldoze her way through it. But forewarned was forearmed. And if Voss could slow the invaders down, there was a chance that he could stop them.

Immediately after the ill-fated expedition into Hashi’s territory, Voss had recognized the need to strengthen the defenses along his southern border and spent a king’s ransom to buy, transport, and site three 155-millimeter howitzers. Now, in his hour of need, they were hidden in the hills off to the west. Each pre–civil war weapon could theoretically fire four rounds per minute and strike targets up to eighteen miles away.

Unfortunately they were vulnerable from the air, and while they were well camouflaged, he couldn’t fire them without attracting Hashi’s drones, aircraft that, judging from the way the scouts had been killed could attack and kill. Machine guns might bring some of them down, but since Voss was badly outnumbered, he couldn’t afford to lose a single howitzer. Therefore, a team of mercs had been dispatched to Thermopolis to buy heat-seeking missiles and the launchers required to fire them. Once they arrived, Voss would be able to rain high-explosive shells down on that section of the valley with impunity. All of that and more flickered through Voss’s mind as he eyed the scout. “Understood. And the Ronin?”

“Most of them are massed five miles south of here waiting for the tractors to catch up with them.”

“How soon will the tractors arrive?”

“That depends,” Kovo replied. “If they stop for the night, they should join the main force by noon tomorrow. If they travel at night, they will arrive before dawn.”

Voss thought about that. “What about fuel?”

“It’s on a tanker truck that follows along behind the tractors.”

“Could we destroy it? Tonight?”

Kovo’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe… if we went wide, rode south, and attacked from behind. But even if we were successful the Ronin would be there to cut us off.”

“What if I have a way to keep the Ronin busy?”

Kovo’s expression brightened. “That would make all the difference.”

Voss nodded. “Choose two good men in addition to yourself. I’ll supply the rest. Meet me here at six p.m.”

Kovo touched the brim of his hat, pulled his horse around, and rode away.

Voss glanced at the Rolex. It was 3:22 and there were a lot of things to get done. By the time darkness began to fall, Voss had put the slaves to work digging trenches to slow the tractors, a strategy intended to give the inexperienced gun crews more opportunities to strike their targets. And with his help, the mayor of Afton had been able to position two companies of cavalry so they could sweep out into the valley and attack the enemy on both flanks. The third company, which was under the command of a prominent merchant, was scheduled to attack the Ronin just before dawn. Then, once the techies were committed, the townies were supposed to run like hell. Never having fought such an action before, the fools thought they were going to have a bit of fun. Voss figured it would be a miracle if a third of them survived.

In the meantime, Voss, three of his scouts, and six handpicked townies were going to find Hashi’s fuel truck and destroy it. That was the plan, anyway, and Voss was ready when Kovo and his men arrived. They were armed with pistols, military-style assault rifles, and saddlebags filled with hand grenades.

The townies appeared out of the quickly gathering gloom a few moments later, led by a man named Hollings. He had dark skin, green eyes, and a reputation as gunfighter. He and his riders were armed with two pistols apiece and twelve-gauge shotguns, the assumption being that whatever fighting took place was likely to be up close and personal.

Voss nodded approvingly. “All right, men… Kovo will take us across the valley and down the east side. That will put us in position to attack the techies from the rear. Meanwhile, a company of cavalry will charge the Ronin from the north. Our goal is to find the fuel truck and destroy it. Once that’s accomplished, we will run like hell. Any questions? No? Let’s ride.”

As the sun sank in the west and the hills threw dark shadows across the valley, the raiders rode east. Kovo led them across a concrete bridge and into a fallow field. Tall grass swished as the horses passed through it, insects whirred away, and Voss took pleasure in his surroundings. Here, now, in this particular moment, there was nothing to worry about other than the mission he had assigned to himself—not because he had to, but because he wanted to, although he was aware that his actions would inspire others.

They passed the remains of a melancholy farmhouse, splashed through a creek, and climbed the bank beyond. As stars began to populate the sky, Kovo kicked his mount into a ground-eating trot. It wasn’t long before the dark bulk of the eastern hills rose to block the way. Then, with only starlight to guide them, the riders turned south. They were following an ancient fence, and the vibration from the horses’ hooves sent small creatures scurrying for safety.

To the south Voss could see the flickering points of light that represented Ronin campfires. Did that mean they had settled in for the night? Or did that mean they wanted him to believe that? Such was his greatest fear—that Hashi wouldn’t wait for the tractors. Voss knew that if the Ronin attacked right away, they would cut through the townies like a hot knife through butter. And given how inexperienced the gunners were, it would be easy to hit friendly forces during the hours of darkness. Then, having cleared the choke point, Hashi’s forces would surge into Star Valley. Could the remaining mercs stop her? Maybe… but the outcome would be far from certain.

The campfires grew gradually brighter, came abreast of Voss, and began to dim as the riders continued south. Voss saw a shooting star streak across the sky and hoped it was a good omen. Kovo turned west a few minutes later and led the group into an ocean of darkness. The campfires Voss had seen earlier were off to his right now. But there, straight ahead of him, were three points of light. The rearguard, perhaps? Including the personnel associated with the fuel truck? He hoped so.

According to the luminous dial on the Rolex, the townies weren’t due to launch the diversionary attack for another fifteen minutes. So Voss wasn’t surprised when Kovo led the group down into a ravine and sent a scout up to keep an eye on the enemy. It was a good opportunity to take a pee, let the horses drink from the creek that flowed through the ravine, and cinch their saddles. And that’s what the raiders were doing when the drones attacked.

Voss had assumed that the machines couldn’t operate at night. He was wrong. That became apparent when a drone with a four-foot wingspan swooped in and fired a single shot. The pilot, who was stationed hundreds of miles to the southwest and was “looking” at the scene via a satellite relay, missed the man he was aiming for. But the bullet hit the townie’s horse, which reared and threw him off. Then, maddened by the pain, the animal galloped down the ravine.

As the first aircraft disappeared into the darkness, another attacked. The motor produced a high-pitched whine as the drone bore in from the south, only this time Hollings was ready for it. As the machine came into range, he and another townie fired their shotguns. The aircraft exploded as it ran into a cloud of lead pellets. Pieces of hot shrapnel flew in every direction. A chunk of metal hit one of the scouts in the temple and killed him instantly. A townie was wounded.

Meanwhile, all hell was breaking loose to the north as the townies launched an attack on the Ronin. That was good, but not good enough, as Voss learned when a horse and rider skidded down into the ravine. Voss could barely make him out in the gloom. “They’re on to us, sir. A whole lot of Ronin are coming this way.”

“How many?”

“It’s too dark to tell, sir. Fifteen? Twenty? Something like that.”

“Tether your horses,” Voss shouted. “Get up on the edge of the ravine. Prepare to fire, but wait for my command.”

Kovo ordered the wounded man to remain with the horses as the rest of them scrambled up the slope. The element of surprise had been lost, so the fuel truck was out of reach now. Voss knew that. All he could do was try to discourage pursuit and make a run for it.

There was a thunder of hooves as the Ronin came closer. They were determined to catch up with the raiding party before it could escape. So they rode hard, saw the edge of the ravine, and were starting to rein their horses in when Voss shouted, “Fire!”

Tongues of flame stabbed the night. Horses screamed as shotgun pellets struck them. The rattle of assault weapons was a sharp counterpoint to the overlapping booms that the shotguns made as the townies opened fire. Horses went down, Ronin were blown out of their saddles, and screams added to the din.

But the battle wasn’t one-sided. Slugs threw up divots of dirt all around, and the man next to Voss fell as he gave another order. “Grenades!”

Bombs flew through the air, exploded among the enemy, and cut the survivors down. “Back to the horses!” Voss shouted. “We’re pulling out.”

They rode hard. And even though Voss feared that one or more drones would swoop out of the darkness, none did. Maybe the machines were being employed elsewhere—or maybe there was a limited number of them. Whatever the reason, the raiders were able to make their way back to Geneva without suffering additional casualties.

A cluster of old buildings had been taken over and were being used as a makeshift headquarters. A bedroom in an old house had been prepared for Voss’s use. It was furnished with campaign-style furniture including a bed. After splashing some water onto his face and eating a sliced beef sandwich, Voss went out to make the rounds.

The cavalry company had paid a heavy price, and since Voss had been forced to abort the raid, the deaths were for nothing. Only sixteen of the hundred men had survived, and half of them were wounded. They were quartered in an old barn, and Voss made a point of speaking with each and every one of them before meeting with Kovo, then falling into bed.

The knocking sound came seconds later. Or that was the way it seemed, until a glance at his watch confirmed that more than two hours had passed. And the sun was up, judging from the light that was leaking in between the hastily hung curtains. Voss sat up. “Come in.”

Kovo entered the room, hat in hands. “Sorry to bother you, sir… but I have news.”

Voss put his feet on the floor. “What kind?”

“Both kinds, sir. The good news is that the missile launchers arrived. I sent them up to the gun positions.”

“Excellent,” Voss said as he pulled his pants on. “And the bad news?”

“The enemy tractors are pushing forward with the Ronin right behind them.”

Voss buttoned his shirt. “And the drones?”

“There have been a dozen sightings.”

“So Hashi knows about the cavalry units positioned east and west?”

Kovo nodded. “Yes, sir. The Ronin sent cavalry to protect their flanks.”

Voss buckled the gun rig around his waist. “How about the howitzers? Does Hashi know about those?”

“No, sir. Not so far as I know.”

“Well, that’s good news. Not that it matters. The element of surprise would be nice, but it isn’t critical. Have someone fetch Odin.”

“He’s ready, sir.”

“Thank you. And one more thing. Let’s take Miss Silverton with us.”

Half an hour later, Voss, Sara, and a small party of mercs were stationed on top of a knoll, where, thanks to a bright green flag, the townies, gun crews, Ronin, and drones could see them. The fact that they were on horseback made the group that much more visible.

The gesture was part bravado and part common sense. The idea was to encourage the townies, show the gunners what to avoid, and provide Voss with a good view. The drones could attack, but if they did, Voss was counting on mercs to keep the machines at bay. “So,” Voss said as the black tractors entered the maze of traps that cut across the valley. “How will the battle go?”

Sara was wearing a custom-made outfit that consisted of a frothy white blouse, a brown jacket, tan riding pants, and knee-high boots. The chains weren’t practical in that situation. And there was little chance of escape, since a merc had hold of the twenty-foot-long tether that was connected to Sara’s horse. She squinted into the harsh sunlight. “I told you. Thunder will roll, a steel rain will fall, and blood will flow like a river.”

“That’s obvious,” Voss responded. “Kovo could make that prediction.”

Sara turned to look at him. Her eyes were slightly out of focus. A gust of wind tugged at her hair. “You will win, and you will lose. That is all I can see.”

Voss was about to respond when a merc shouted, “Here they come,” and Voss brought the binoculars up to his eyes. From a distance, the Ronin seemed to rise and fall like waves in a sea of black. There were at least a thousand of them, many with swords waving in the air. Voss spoke without lowering the glasses. “Send the cavalry in.”

In spite of what had occurred the night before, the townies were brave. Voss had to give them that. Or were they afraid of him? Not that it mattered. Out they went, cutting into the ranks of Ronin waiting to face them, firing as they rode. The knoll was at least a mile from the melee, but Voss could hear the crackle of gunfire and see swords flashing in the sun.

The Ronin on the east side of the valley gave under the weight of the assault, a hole opened, and the townies poured in. Voss said, “No!” but it was too late. The hole closed, and the townies were surrounded and effectively cut to pieces.

The action on the west side of the gap was different. The townies rode in, slid off their horses, and began to fire from cover as teenage boys led their horses to the rear. The black-clad Ronin went down in successive waves as they rode into the hail of bullets, and Voss knew why. Hollings was in command—a man worth recruiting if he survived.

Meanwhile the rest of the Ronin, at least five hundred of them, were going straight up the middle. They looked like an army of black ants as columns of riders followed scouts through a maze of ditches and pits. Voss turned to Kovo. “Order the guns to fire.”

Kovo spoke into a microphone. A minute passed. Then a loud boom was heard, followed by another, and one more. Widely separated puffs of smoke appeared in the hills off to the west. As they passed over Voss’s head, the shells made shrieking sounds, followed by thunderous booms as they landed. Columns of dirt mixed with dimly seen bodies, and parts of bodies shot up into the air as two rounds fell in among the Ronin. The third fell short and exploded harmlessly. “Tell that gunner to correct his aim, or I will go up there and shoot him,” Voss said grimly.

Kovo spoke into the mike, but Voss couldn’t hear him as a shell rumbled overhead. It was stupid to stay on the knoll. He realized that now. A short round could kill him and the rest of the command party. But he couldn’t leave without losing face, sending the wrong signal to his troops, or both. So Voss sat tall in the saddle and did his best to look unconcerned as the shells continued to fall.

The howitzers were capable of firing four or even five rounds per minute in experienced hands. But that wasn’t the case here. Voss figured the guns were putting out one round per minute on average. Most of the shells were on target, and the barrage was taking a toll. One tractor was a smoking wreck, another was badly damaged, and it was only a matter of time before the rest took hits. He was winning!

“Drones are attacking the guns,” Kovo announced. “But the missiles brought two of them down.”

Voss looked west but couldn’t see anything. That was when Sara spoke. “Look left!”

The warning came just in time. A dozen Ronin had been able to work their way through the maze on foot. And now, with the enemy leader in sight, they swarmed up out of a brushy ravine, firing as they came.

Kovo was snatched out of the saddle, and a second merc fell. Voss fired his pistol as a Ronin charged him. The bullet smashed into the mercenary’s face but failed to kill him. He fell, but his right boot was caught in a stirrup. The Ronin’s horse dragged him away.

Meanwhile Sara grabbed hold of the lead that controlled her horse, gave a jerk, and felt the rope come free as the merc assigned to guard her took a slug in the chest. Sara kicked her horse into motion and rode straight out into the area where the artillery shells had been falling. But the guns were out of ammo by then.

Voss caught up with Sara, grabbed her reins, and brought the roan under control. Only then did he turn to look south. The area in front of him looked like a moonscape. Craters overlapped one another and a carpet of black-clad bodies littered the battlefield. Beyond that, what remained of Hashi’s army was in full retreat, the irony being that the guns were out of ammo, and had the Ronin pressed forward they would have been able to clear the maze and enter the valley beyond. “What will you do now?” Sara wanted to know.

“Chase them,” Voss said grimly, “all the way to Sage. I need a buffer.”

“So,” he said, as their eyes met. “You were wrong. You said I would win, and you said I would lose. I won.”

Sara smiled. “Ah, but it isn’t over yet.”

Chapter Thirteen

Idaho Falls, Idaho, USA

It had been raining on and off all morning, and Tre could sense that the all-too-brief summer was coming to an end as he stood at the edge of the pit and peered down into the muddy depths. Two weeks had passed since the garbage mine had been liberated, and a great deal had changed, not the least of which was the fact that all the mine’s diggers, sorters, and haulers were employees rather than slaves and free to leave whenever they wanted to go. And hundreds had. That was a loss in a way, but an advantage too, since every one of them would be singing Crow’s praises. And word of mouth was very important in post apocalyptic America.

But some, about three hundred in all, had elected to stay and work for Crow. He had promised to feed them and pay a bullet a day in exchange for their labor. More than that, Crow planned to use whatever profits there might be to further what he called the New Revolution.

That sounded good to Tre. Real good. But as with so many things Crow came up with, very little thought had been given to how things would work. The mine was valuable—so who would defend it? Now Crow had employees to feed. Where would the food come from? Which food lord should he form an alliance with? Once the word began to spread, more people would come. How many was too many? Tre was troubled by those questions and many more.

Crow had a tendency to become annoyed when Tre mentioned such problems, but that was the nature of their relationship. And, because Crow had a tendency to assign Tre responsibility for any issue he raised, the younger man was fast becoming the de facto second in command—a position he hadn’t asked for, didn’t want, and was seemingly stuck with.

Meanwhile, rather than focus on the mine the way Tre wanted him to, Crow was talking about a return to Star Valley. And that, Tre had decided, was something he would object to. So he turned away from the pit, walked the short distance to the headquarters building, and went inside. The lobby had been colonized by Knife, Bones, Smoke, and the others, so it was a mess. The only person present was Freak, who rushed over to take Tre’s arm. “Berry patch,” she said brightly, and beamed up at him.

“Same to you,” Tre said as he freed himself. “Where’s your bow? Someone should guard Crow.”

“Milk cans,” Freak replied, and left to get her bow.

During the weeks since the bandits had taken control of the mine, Kimble’s extremely tidy office had been transformed into what Bones called the Crow’s nest. It was an untidy jumble of papers, weapons, and filthy clothing. Tre entered to find Crow looking his way. “There you are. Henry, this is Tre… He thinks it would be crazy to attack Voss right now. Tell him why he’s wrong.”

Henry was probably in his thirties but looked twenty years older. He had beady eyes and leathery skin. The combination was reminiscent of a snake. And when he spoke it was with a voice so hoarse there was clearly something wrong with him. “Half of Lord Voss’s mercenaries are escorting food caravans east,” Henry said. “That was before Lord Hashi attacked him from the south. Voss had no choice but to take three hundred militiamen and ride south.”

Tre looked to Crow and back to Henry. “And the rest of the mercs?”

Henry’s eyes blinked rapidly. “About a quarter of them followed the militiamen. A backstop, so to speak. The rest were left behind to keep the slaves in line.”

“And you know these things because?” Tre inquired skeptically.

“He knows those things because I pay him to know those things,” Crow interjected.

Tre looked into Crow’s eyes and saw the challenge there. Crow wasn’t the best planner in the world, but he was an excellent strategist. The attack on the garbage mine had been his idea, not Tre’s. Nor was the younger man privy to all of Crow’s machinations. Henry was a good example of that. “Got it.”

Crow’s expression softened. “Thanks, Henry. Here’s your pay. Stay safe and I’ll see you soon.” Tre saw a full box of ammo change hands and realized that Henry was more than he appeared to be. The scarecrow look was a carefully calculated ruse, and the spy probably had a large stash of ammo somewhere.

Henry took the box, said, “Thanks,” and left. Freak blew him a kiss on the way out. “You’ve got that look again,” Crow said as he sat in what had been Kimble’s chair.

“What look?”

“The ‘I have a stick up my butt’ look. You heard Henry… This is the perfect time to attack.”

“No,” Tre said firmly, “it isn’t. We need more fighters.”

“I recruited fifty of them. Twenty-five for Knife and twenty-five for this mission. You know that.”

“I also know that they aren’t trained,” Tre responded.

“Oh, yeah? Well, you weren’t trained either,” Crow replied. “These people are survivors. They know how to fight.”

“But will they follow orders?”

“We’ll train them on the way.”

There was a moment of silence as both men stared at each other. Tre spoke first. “You’re right. Voss is gone. That constitutes an opening. But for what? You can’t take Star Valley and hold it with thirty people, and you know that. So level with me. Why now?”

Crow looked away for a moment as if to maintain his composure. When his eyes returned, they were as steely as ever. “Voss has my sister.”

Tre thought he had misunderstood. “He has your what?”

“He has my sister, Sara. He keeps her in his house.”

Tre stared. “So this is about your sister. That’s why we fought for this mine?”

“No. I wanted to attack the mine for all the reasons we discussed in the past. But the raid would put the hurts to Voss, provide us with food for the winter, and free my sister.”

Tre nodded. “Thank you. I’m in.”

They left the next morning. The rain had stopped by then, but a cold wind was trying to find its way in through the duster Tre was wearing. The band included Crow, Tre, Fade, Smoke, and Freak, plus a force of twenty-five recruits. That added up to thirty people, a ridiculously small army for the job at hand. But Crow believed that good intelligence plus the element of surprise and superior weaponry would be sufficient. Tre hoped he was correct.

The recruits were mounted on horses that had been captured along with the garbage mine, and all of them were unarmed. There were two reasons for that. First, the overseers’ best weapons had been given to Knife’s newly created security force because it was important to protect the mine.

But there was a second reason as well. Crow wanted to spend a few days with the newbies before giving them guns, especially in light of the fact that there were so many of them, a very sensible precaution to Tre’s way of thinking.

The training that Crow subjected the recruits to was invented on the spot but effective nevertheless. Individuals were dispatched to find a common everyday item, such as a hammer, and given six hours to not only accomplish it, but also catch up with the rest of the group. The exercise tested their resourcefulness, navigation skills, and level of commitment—because they could take their horse and run if they chose to, which Crow thought was preferable to harboring a person he couldn’t depend on.

Another exercise involved appointing a leader and sending a group of six people ahead to construct the camp that the entire group would stay in that night. After Crow caught up with them, he would wander through the encampment, pausing every once in a while to discuss the finer points of camouflage and defense.

There were other exercises too, including a hide-and-seek challenge that involved trying to hide from Smoke and Fade, a stick-fighting duel with Tre, and a series of archery competitions with Freak, all of which gave Crow ample opportunity to assess skills, force people to get acquainted, and forge a unified group.

They had been traveling in circles up until then, so by end of the fourth day the group was still on the west side of the Caribou Mountains. And, knowing that Voss could return to Star Valley at any time, Crow couldn’t afford to use any additional time. So without revealing where the cache of weapons was, he paid two recruits and let them go—one because she lacked sufficient skills and one because he couldn’t follow orders.

After they left, Fade followed one and Smoke followed the other to make sure that they didn’t circle back. And since neither one of them knew about the raid, there was no reason to worry about security.

Having purged the team, Crow led the group to the farm where roughly half of the special operations weapons cache was buried. The hiding spot was well away from the old house, the stand-alone garage, and the barn, all of which were magnets for people who happened to be passing through.

Once the cache was uncovered and the contents removed, the business of distributing weapons and equipment began. It was a process Crow showed very little interest in. Was he thinking about Star Valley? And his sister? Probably. But Crow was moody at the best of times, so there was no way to be certain.

Whatever the reason, Tre was left to supervise the process, rebury the arms that were left over, and divide the force into small groups for weapons training, tasks he had orders to accomplish by nightfall. Then, as the sun rose in the morning, they would ride. But to what? Victory? Or defeat? Tre hoped for the first but feared the second. He ordered the recruits in his group to field strip their weapons. Only one of them knew how. It was going to be a long afternoon.

• • •

Afton, Wyoming, USA

Lora was working in the hot, steamy kitchen and had been for more than a week now. It was hard, sweaty work, but preferable to the hole. Even if Mr. Oliver was a drunken tyrant.

She was a dishwasher, the lowest position in the kitchen’s hierarchy. That meant she was subject to abuse from Mr. Oliver and the more senior slaves as well. Tongue-lashings were common, as were corporal punishments, which consisted of being struck with a variety of kitchen implements. The results were bruises on her back since she spent most of the day facing the sink.

Making a bad situation worse was the fact that Voss and Miss Silverton were down south fighting Lord Hashi. The meant Mr. Oliver could begin drinking earlier in the day, and the more he drank, the meaner he became. All the staff could do was keep their heads down and hope that he would pass out, something he did with a great deal of regularity.

Meanwhile, Lora was working to remove some burned meat from the inside of a large pot and thinking about what she always thought about, which was the need to escape—not just for her sake, but in order to warn the people in the Sanctuary and to do so before Voss could attack them. If she failed, the food lord would enslave or kill them.

But how? It would have been difficult back when she was a maid. Now, after being tagged as a troublemaker, she had even less freedom. She had a plan, though… or the beginnings of one. And it involved the horse-drawn dairy wagon that stopped by the house once a day.

The routine was always the same. Mr. Perkins would guide his horses up to the back door, get down from the wagon, and lower the tailgate. At that point Lora would be sent out to fetch the containers of fresh milk, cream, and butter.

Meanwhile Mr. Perkins would go inside, sit down, and have a cup of tea. That meant there was a period of time during which the wagon was unsupervised. Could Lora take the last load of dairy products into the kitchen, return outside, and slip under the wagon unobserved? And could she squeeze her body into the cargo box mounted under the wagon bed? There was seldom anything in it, so that wasn’t likely to be a problem.

No, the main threat was that she would be missed before Mr. Perkins returned to the wagon. If so, the kitchen staff would be ordered to search for her. But, Lora thought, that’s the chance you’ll have to take. The alternative is to let Voss take control of the Sanctuary.

So the question was when, not if, and Lora knew she would have to make a split-second decision when the right opportunity came along. The problem was that a long succession of days had passed without producing the kind of conditions she needed. So there she was, scrubbing the big pot, when she heard a thump followed by a chorus of laughter. “He’ll feel that when he wakes up,” somebody said.

Lora turned to look over her shoulder. A bottle was lying on its side and Mr. Oliver was facedown on the table. Based on previous experience, Lora knew he was likely to remain unconscious for an hour or so.

Her heart was beating faster as she turned back to her work. Mr. Oliver had passed out earlier than usual. Was this the chance she’d been waiting for? Maybe. If Mr. Oliver remained unconscious and Mr. Perkins arrived on time, no one would pay much attention to her.

The minutes seemed to crawl by as Lora finished the last of the breakfast dishes. Every now and then she looked to see if Mr. Oliver had stirred and took heart from the fact that he hadn’t. Finally, as the people around her began to work on lunch, Lora heard the words she’d been waiting for. “Lora, Mr. Perkins is here. Go out and unload the wagon.”

Lora hung her head submissively as she left the kitchen and went outside. Unlike most of the overseers, Mr. Perkins was a nice man. He smiled at her as they passed.

Lora felt a rising sense of tension as she took the first load in. The key was to fade into the background as Mr. Perkins claimed center stage. He was seated next to Mr. Oliver by then and making fun of him, a rare treat, which the slaves enjoyed immensely.

The first load was followed by a second and a third. By that time Mr. Perkins had crowned Mr. Oliver with a mixing bowl and was in the process of placing a spoon scepter in his hand, so no one noticed as Lora left for a fourth trip.

Once outside, Lora took a quick look around, decided that no one was watching her, and ducked below the wagon. The cargo compartment was mounted underneath the bed, where its contents would be safe from bad weather. It was at least six feet long and four feet wide, so no problem there. But the box was only a foot tall. That meant Lora had to squeeze inside, and once she did, her nose was only an inch from the wood above.

As Lora pulled on the stick that served as a prop, the top-hinged door fell into place. She felt a sudden sense of panic. The space was too small! She had to get out. But if she did, all hope of an escape would be lost. Lora was wrestling with herself when she heard some muted laughter and knew that Mr. Perkins had left the house. The wagon shook as he climbed up onto the driver’s box and clucked at the horses. That was followed by a jerk and a rattling sound as the vehicle got under way.

Perkins would have to pass through the checkpoint where the driveway met the main road. Would the mercenaries inspect the cargo box? Or would they wave the conveyance through as they had many times before? Don’t look, Lora thought. Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look.

A couple of minutes passed as the wagon rolled downhill. Then it came to a stop and Lora heard voices. They were at the gate. She was close, so very close. What felt like a minute passed. Then another. Don’t panic, Lora told herself. Maybe the mercs are inspecting an incoming wagon… Maybe…

Then she heard a scuffling sound and the door opened. And there, peering in at her, was Mr. Oliver. His eyes were red, his breath was foul, and he stank of alcohol. “Here she is!” he said triumphantly. “Thought you could run, eh? We’ll have none of that. Not while I’m on duty.” Then the face was gone.

Mercs appeared, jerked Lora out of the box, and air-walked her up the drive to a place she knew all too well: the hole. It was about six feet deep, four feet wide, and six feet long. Roughly the dimensions of a well-dug grave. The bottom was covered by twelve inches of water mixed with human waste.

Lora felt the substance rise over her ankles as they dropped her into the hole. As she looked upward she saw Mr. Oliver appear. His lanky body was silhouetted against a rectangle of blue sky. “Mr. Voss will be back any day now,” the overseer said. “And that’s when you will die.”

As the wooden lid was lowered into place, she knew the mercs would place a chunk of concrete on top of it. Darkness replaced the sky, the stink filled her nostrils, and Lora was all alone.

• • •

Near Afton, Wyoming, USA

It was three a.m. and very dark. During two days of riding, the bandits had been able to cross the Caribou range, turn south at the town of Alpine, and avoid Voss’s patrols by traveling at night and hugging the mountains on the west side of Highway 89. During the journey, Fade and Smoke had been able to purchase four wagons along with the mules required to pull them.

Now, having bypassed Afton, the group was poised to strike. There were two objectives. The first was to raid one of Voss’s canneries, and the second was to rescue Crow’s sister.

Tre had volunteered for the second mission, knowing how much it meant to Crow and having full confidence in Smoke’s ability to lead the raid on the cannery. Crow was a dimly seen presence. “Remember,” he said, “most of the mercs are gone. But those who remain will outnumber us four to one. But we have as much firepower as they do. So if we stick to the plan, everything will be okay. Questions? No? Okay. Let’s do this thing.”

Horses nickered, and a mule complained loudly as Smoke led the wagons and fifteen riders down the road that led to the cannery. The rest of the group, ten in all, followed Crow toward Highway 89. They were wearing cowboy hats and dusters in the hope that passersby would think they were mercenaries.

The only light was that provided by a wan moon partially obscured by clouds. But it was sufficient to see the intersection with 89 and turn onto it. According to Crow’s spy, there were about thirty mercs stationed at the Voss mansion, half of whom would be off duty at three thirty a.m. So once the raiders forced their way in through the main gate and neutralized the weapons emplacements upslope from the highway, they planned to attack the barracks. Then they could break into the house and rescue Sara Silverton.

Tre felt the usual combination of fear and excitement as the mansion appeared up ahead. Lights could be seen in some of the ground-floor windows in spite of the early morning hour. Crow waved his followers forward and the horses broke into a gallop.

Tre heard shouts and saw a couple of muzzle flashes, just before Crow fired the grenade launcher attached to the underside of his assault rifle. The resulting explosion blew the gate open and allowed the lead horsemen to enter.

The surviving mercs returned fire, but they were seriously outgunned. Their Model 70 bolt-action Winchesters were no match for military assault rifles. As Tre fired at a muzzle flash, he heard a scream.

Having killed or seriously wounded all the mercs stationed at the gate, the raiders started up the drive. Now the advantage lay with the mercs. There were three machine-gun emplacements on the slope above, and all of them opened fire. A horse went down, rolled over its rider, and killed him.

But as the mercs fired the machine guns, they revealed where they were, and that was what the Deacon had been waiting for. He was on the ground by then with the shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapon at the ready. He fired and was rewarded with a brilliant flash of light and a resounding boom as his rocket scored a direct hit. Scratch one machine gun.

One of the new recruits was there to reload the tube and slap the Deacon on the shoulder. He fired and sent another 83-millimeter rocket downrange. Another hit lit up the night. But that was when the Deac ran out of luck. A merc fired from somewhere up above, the Deacon went down, and the loader sought cover.

Meanwhile the third gun had been silenced by a combination of auto fire and a grenade from Crow’s launcher. That cleared the way to the top of the slope. “The barracks!” Crow shouted. “Follow me!”

Tre kicked his horse into motion. What was he doing here? The whole thing was crazy. Weapons blazed as the mercs holed up in the barracks opened fire. That was when someone uttered a long, piercing war cry, and Tre was surprised to discover that the sound had originated with him.

• • •

Lora was awake and standing in twelve inches of filthy water. All her senses were keyed up. She could hear the muted sound of gunfire as well as an occasional explosion. The house was under attack. But by whom? And why? The best bet was Lord Hashi. Perhaps a battle had been lost and Voss was dead. Maybe Hashi’s forces had already swept up the length of the valley and would attack Afton soon. Damn, damn, damn! If only she had waited. It would have been relatively easy to escape during the battle. But now, while trapped in the hole, there was nothing Lora could do but listen.

Then much to Lora’s surprise, she heard a grating sound and realized that someone was pushing the block of concrete off the lid. One of the invaders? No, that seemed unlikely. A merc, then, sent to take her away. But why? Everyone knew she was slated to hang.

Lora’s thoughts were interrupted as the lid rose and a moonlit silhouette appeared. Lora expected the man to order her out of the hole and was taken by surprise when he jumped in. A flashlight came on as the lid fell. And that was when Lora saw Mr. Oliver’s unshaven face. He smiled evilly and his sour breath enveloped her. “So you’re alive! Good. I have no desire to share this hole with a rotting corpse.”

That was when Lora realized the truth. Mr. Oliver was hiding from the attackers. And if she could kill him, there was a possibility of escape.

Lora had learned a number of things since being forced to leave the Sanctuary, one of which had to do with the male anatomy. She brought a knee up, heard Mr. Oliver utter a grunt, and felt a puff of fetid air hit her face.

The overseer swore, took a step back, and fumbled for the pistol in his waistband. Rather than let him draw it, Lora stepped in to wrap her arms around his. Bone met cartilage as her head snapped forward, and bone won. The bridge of Mr. Oliver’s nose collapsed and blood gushed down over his mouth.

But the overseer had some tricks of his own. Having clenched his hands, he bent his elbows and brought both of them straight up. That broke Lora’s hold and opened a gap between them. Then he threw a punch. It connected with Lora’s chin and threw her backward. Water splashed in every direction as she landed and Mr. Oliver threw himself on top of her. “Die, bitch,” he growled as he placed both hands on Lora’s chest and tried to force her head down under the filthy liquid.

Mr. Oliver was too heavy to dislodge. Lora knew that just as she knew that once her head went underwater, it would never come up again. Having failed to push the man off, Lora brought her hands down to explore the bottom of the pit. What she needed was a rock to hit him with.

There wasn’t any rock, but Lora’s fingers found something better in the form of a human thighbone. She stabbed at Mr. Oliver’s eyes with the fingers on her left hand. That forced his head up and back just as the club came up to hit him. He looked surprised, frowned, and was about to say something when Lora hit him again. And again.

Mr. Oliver’s eyes rolled out of focus and he toppled forward. Lora was trapped, and it was a struggle to wiggle her way out from under the inert body. Then, having managed to escape, she felt for the pistol. It was still there, protruding from Mr. Oliver’s waistband.

Lora stood and saw that the flashlight was still on and bobbing in the water. She bent to retrieve it, found a ledge to place the light on, and began to strip. The uniform was soaking wet and very heavy. It felt good to get rid of it.

Then, with pistol in hand, she stood on Mr. Oliver’s back. That made the difference. Now she could reach the lid. She made use of the gun barrel to shove it up and out of the way. The fighting was still under way. That meant there was a chance. Lora began to climb. She was halfway up when fingers closed around her ankle and Mr. Oliver jerked her down.

“I’m going to kill you,” he said as Lora landed in the water. “And Mr. Voss will reward me for it.” The flashlight was still on, and as Lora looked up at the cook, she could see the rivulets of blood that were running down his face. He had the bone now, and he raised it above his head.

The gunshots were unusually loud in the confined space. Mr. Oliver jerked spastically, fell over backward, and collapsed.

Lora’s breath was coming in short gasps, and her heart was beating like a trip-hammer as she stood on him for the second time, pulled herself up, and rolled out onto the ground.

• • •

The barracks were on fire. Flames could be seen in some of the windows as the front door burst open and two mercenaries came out shooting. It was a futile gesture. They fell in a hail of bullets. Tre figured the barracks had a back door. If so, it was safe to assume that some of the mercs were on the loose.

“I’m going to enter the house!” Crow shouted. “Keep your eyes peeled.” With that, Crow slid to the ground, gave his reins to Freak, and fired a grenade at the front door. There was a flash of light followed by a loud bang. Wood splintered and a gap appeared. Two recruits followed Crow inside.

Tre kicked his horse into motion. What, if anything, was taking place out back? He circled around the north side of the structure and was about to pass between the house and what he took to be the servants’ quarters when a woman waddled out to yell at him. He pointed the carbine at her. She went back inside.

Having seen no other threat, Tre circled around the south side of the mansion and arrived just in time to see a strange apparition climb up out of what looked like a grave. Her skin seemed to glow in the pale moonlight, and he saw that she was clad in a bra and panties. Not a spirit, then… Such were his thoughts as she fired a pistol at him. Then she turned and ran.

The bullet missed. Tre urged his mount forward and quickly caught up with her. As he drew abreast of the girl, Tre took hold of the saddle horn with his left hand and leaned out over the ground. The fugitive wasn’t very heavy, and it was easy to scoop her up. “I’m not a merc! I won’t hurt you!” Tre said as he reined the horse in. The girl reeked of feces and he put her down.

She stared up at him with big eyes. There was something about her expression, the dirt-smeared face, and the defiant pose that made him smile. He noticed that the pistol was ready at her side. “You can stay here,” Tre said gently, “or you can leave with me. The decision is up to you.”

• • •

Lora looked up at the man on the horse. He was young—she could see that much—and heavily armed. One of the raiders, then. A merc would have killed her. “I’ll go with you.”

“Can you ride?”

Lora nodded. “Yes.”

“Get up behind me… and hang on tight.” The man extended a hand and Lora took it. Seconds later she was up on the horse with her arms wrapped around his waist. He gave the animal a nudge with his heels, and they rounded a corner and arrived out front. That was when a second man burst out through what had been the front door. Others were right behind him. “She isn’t here!” he proclaimed. “Voss took her south.”

Was the second man referring to Miss Silverton? Who else could it be? The connection made Lora feel better. If the raiders were trying to free Miss Silverton, then there was reason to trust them.

• • •

Tre was thinking about the arms that were wrapped around his waist when the radio attached to his weapons harness burped static. “This is Fade… A large group of mercs is approaching from the south! Get out of there.”

Crow was on his horse by then, and he had a radio as well. “Remember the plan… We’re pulling out!“

Tre brought the horse’s head around and kicked its ribs. The animal bolted down the driveway and between a scattering of bodies. Then they were past the gate and out on the highway. The plan was to scatter and meet at an assembly point near Freedom. Once the group was reunited, the original group members would lead the new recruits up into the mountains.

With that in mind, Tre urged his mount into a gallop. Then he turned off onto the first road he came to and headed west. As he glanced back over his shoulder, he saw that there were no signs of pursuit. And that was when he remembered that the girl was clad in nothing more than some underwear.

The horse slowed to a trot as Tre looked for a good place to pause. An old house loomed black on black off to the left. He pulled the horse around and rode that way. There were trees on both sides of the driveway. A bird, possibly an owl, took flight, and the sudden flutter of wings caused his heart to jump up into his throat.

Then, as they rounded the house, Tree pulled back on the reins. “Jump down,” he instructed.

• • •

Lora felt a stab of fear. There she was, all by herself, and nearly naked. What did the man have in mind? She slid to the ground, brought the pistol up, and was pointing it at him as he dismounted. The moonlight was on his face, and she could see the man’s smile as he removed the duster. “Here,” he said. “Put this on. We have a long way to go and you’ll freeze if you don’t.”

Lora accepted the coat and slipped it on. The garment was at least two sizes too big. She had to roll up the sleeves, and the bottom of it went all the way down to her ankles. It was scratchy, but the additional warmth was welcome. “My name is Tre,” the man said. “And you are?”

“Lora.”

“Well, Lora, I look forward to hearing your story, but that will have to wait. Here,” he said as he handed her a fistful of .45 cartridges. “Reload that six-shooter and keep it handy.”

A flurry of shots sounded in the distance, and both of them turned in that direction. “Let’s mount up,” Tre said. “We need to put more distance between us and the highway.”

• • •

The horse was overloaded, so Tre knew he couldn’t push the animal too hard. He alternated between a walk and a trot as the moon went down and the sky began to lighten in the east. Navigation was easy. All he had to do was stay close to the rolling hills on the west side of the valley and follow them north. He tried the radio twice, but there was no response. Either the rest of the bandits were too busy to answer or they were out of range.

Rather than ride into Freedom and what might be a trap, Tre chose to guide the horse up over a softly rounded hill. Once they were on the other side, he told Lora to get down, did likewise, and tied the horse to some scrub. Then, careful to stay low, he made his way up to the top of the rise, where he plopped down on his stomach.

As the sun rose above the eastern mountains, rays of light speared down into the valley. Tre brought the glasses to bear and scanned from left to right. Everything looked fine at first. A bit of ground mist still clung to the neatly organized farms, dairy cattle could be seen grazing in the surrounding fields, and slaves were headed out to bring them in.

But as Tre panned right, he saw what looked like a column of ants. And as they rode north on Highway 89, small groups turned left and right. The search was on, and three mercs were riding straight at him. “Can I look?”

Tre turned to look at Lora. She was right next to him. And now, in the light of day, he realized how pretty she was. Pretty and something else… Something he didn’t have words for. Whatever it was made him feel protective and awkward at the same time. Some of that must have been visible on his face, because she frowned. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Tre said, and gave her the glasses. “Look straight ahead. Some of them are coming our way. We have two choices. We can ambush them or run. If we fight they could win. If we run they could catch us. Especially since we’re riding double and our horse is tired. Cast your vote.”

Lora glanced at him and then looked through the binoculars again. “They’ll catch us if we run. So let’s fight.”

Tre admired her clarity. The riders were closer now, and he didn’t need binoculars to see them. “I agree,” he said. “So here’s the plan… Take my hat, get on the horse, and wait for them to break the skyline. When they do, ride like hell. I’ll hide in the pile of rocks downslope from us. As the mercs go by, I’ll shoot them. With any luck, we’ll pick up a horse. If I fall, don’t come back. Keep riding.”

As Lora looked at him, Tre couldn’t help but notice her brown eyes. They were big and filled with intelligence—and something more. Something he had never seen before. “Be careful,” she said, and took his hat.

Then, before Tre could answer, she was gone. The duster flapped, nearly tripped her, and billowed as she mounted the horse. Then it was time for Tre to seek cover. He scooted back from the edge, stood, and ran downhill.

As Tre hurried to conceal himself behind the cluster of weather-smoothed boulders he hoped that whatever snakes lived in among them were late risers. Three round bursts, he thought. Hit the leaders first and work your way back.

Tre heard a shout as the riders topped the rise and saw Lora below. She turned, looked, and kicked the horse into motion. That produced a flurry of shots from the mercs, some of which kicked up geysers of dirt around her.

There were more shouts as the mercs came streaming down the slope. At that point all their attention was on Lora, so none of them were looking in Tre’s direction when he opened fire. The first burst was on target, and he had the satisfaction of seeing the lead merc thrown out of the saddle. But there was no time in which to savor the victory. The others were turning toward him by then. As they fired, a bullet hit the rock to Tre’s left and a rock chip stung his cheek.

Tre fired in return, saw the rider on the left tumble backward, and knew the third man was closing fast. So he was swinging right, trying to acquire the new target, when Lora charged in from the right. She was shouting to distract the merc and holding her pistol straight out in front of her. It fired three times, and at least one of the slugs hit the target, because he fell forward along his horse’s neck and seemed to rest there for a moment before slumping to the ground.

Lora, who was clearly a practiced rider, caught up with the dead man’s horse and brought it under control. Tre hurried out to take the reins as Lora went after the other mounts. One of them got away, but she returned with a handsome-looking mare. “Nice work,” Tre said admiringly. “Let’s collect what we want and get out of here.”

It took five minutes to scavenge the mercs’ ammo, water, and food. Lora showed no interest in any of their clothes but took a pistol rig, which she wore bandolier-style. The second .45 went into a spacious pocket. Tre chose a rifle for her, which went into the scabbard under her left leg. Then, with both of them on newly acquired mounts, they led Tre’s horse north.

• • •

The area was home to spindly pine trees mixed with low-growing shrubs, some of which were turning gold as winter neared. There were fast-flowing brooks and streams too, but none the horses couldn’t cross, and Lora gloried in being free again. So much had happened in a short time. The fight with Mr. Oliver, followed by the escape from the hole, and this. Now she had a horse. Not to mention an arsenal of weapons. So she could leave whenever she wanted and Tre wouldn’t try to stop her. She knew that somehow. But more important, Lora knew she had no desire to part company with him. Not yet anyway.

So they rode in companionable silence until they came to Highway 34, where Tre told her about his home off to the west, a hideout he called the Tangle, a place where they could rest, wait for the hunt to die down, and decide what to do next. That sounded good. So they set off, constantly on the lookout for mercs and bandits, who would like nothing better than to nab a woman, three horses, and a small fortune in weapons.

• • •

Fortunately, luck was with them. A heavily guarded mule train passed them going the other way shortly after noon, and they passed a man and a woman pulling a cart uphill an hour later, but that was all. So thanks to the horses, a trip that typically took Tre at least a day and a half was completed before sundown. And that was good because he didn’t want to enter the Tangle after dark if he could avoid it. Odds were that the place was just as he had left it, but assumptions could be fatal.

After leaving the highway and checking to make sure that they weren’t being followed, Tre led Lora to the usual spot, where he paused to inspect the Tangle through his binoculars. There was no smoke, no movement, and no signs of habitation.

Thus encouraged, he rode down and directly into the barn, something he’d never had reason to do before. Part of the roof had fallen in, and there were places where siding had been ripped off for use in Tre’s tunnel, but enough of the structure remained to keep the horses hidden. “We’ll leave them saddled for the moment,” Tre said. “Then, if everything is okay, we’ll come back and take care of them. Bring your pistols, but leave everything else here.”

From there Tre led Lora down to the gently flowing creek. The rubber boots were still where he had left them. They were far too large for Lora but kept her feet dry as she followed him downstream to the waiting pool. The foliage around the tunnel entrance appeared to be undisturbed. So Tre pushed his way inside, crawled through the tunnel, and pushed the door open. His pistol was ready, but there was no need. It was pitch-black inside. Tre knew where the matches were and lit one. Then, as he had so many times before, he circled the room, lighting candles as he went.

• • •

Laura crawled into the room and stood. As Tre lit candles, various corners of the room were revealed, and by looking around, Lora could see various aspects of Tre’s character. Everything was neat and tidy. The bed that stood against one wall was made. A box filled with firewood sat next to the stove. Tre opened a door, and as he put a match to the waiting tinder, flames appeared.

Lora could see a kitchen sink as well, a homey reading nook, and shelves loaded with books. It was easy to imagine the snow flying outside while Tre lived other lives through the stories he read. Tre stood and looked at her. “I know it isn’t very fancy,” he said self-consciously, “but it’s safe. Or as safe as anything can be these days.”

“I think it’s beautiful,” Lora said honestly. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

The pleasure Tre felt was plain to see, as was the boy inside the man, and that was very endearing. “I’ll tell you what,” Tre said as he put a kettle of water on to boil. “I’ll go out and take care of the horses. Meanwhile, if you want to, feel free to take a bath.”

That was when Lora noticed the tub. She pointed. “How did you get that in here?”

“It was here when I moved in,” Tre answered. “See the lever? Pump that to bring water up from the pool. But not too much, unless you like cold baths. Then, once it starts to boil, add all the water from the kettle.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Lora said appreciatively. She was filthy and well aware of how she smelled.

“You can find clean clothes in the back,” Tre said. “They’ll be too large, but maybe you can cut them down.”

“And the commode?”

“It works,” Tre said proudly. “See the bucket of water? Pour that in the tank after you flush. Then it will be ready for next time.”

With that, Lora was left to her own devices. She pumped some water into the tub, then checked the kettle, but saw that the water hadn’t begun to boil yet. So she went to the back of the room, chose some clothes, and took them over to a neatly organized worktable. With scissors in hand, Lora was snipping away when she heard a plaintive meow and looked down to see a black-and-white cat. “What’s your name?” she inquired as she scratched the animal behind the ears. He purred loudly—and Lora smiled.

• • •

Having taken care of the horses, Tre returned to the Tangle. The tack was hidden under the floor of the barn, but he brought everything else with him. It was dark by then, but an occasional blip from a squeeze light was enough to find his way. He pushed the gear up the tunnel in front of him and took a moment to announce his presence before entering the basement. “I’m back… Is it okay to come in?”

“Yes,” Lora answered. “I had a wonderful bath, thanks to you.”

Tre pushed the gear into the room and stood. The sleeves were rolled up on the shirt Lora had chosen to wear, and it was tied at the waist. A pair of baggy jeans completed the outfit. He saw that the legs had been shortened and rolled up as well. The slippers were too big for her. She did a turn. “So what do you think? Am I ready for the ball?”

Tre laughed. He’d never been anywhere near a ball, but had read about them in books. “You look beautiful.” Then, fearful that she would think he was coming on to her, he rephrased it. “I mean you look good,” he said awkwardly.

Lora laughed. “Don’t worry, Tre… Girls like compliments. Even if they’re exaggerated.”

Tre nodded soberly. Dealing with girls, especially this girl, was scary business. He didn’t want to screw up. But she was beautiful. And he wanted to stare. “I’ll make dinner,” he said. “Then we can talk.”

• • •

Dinner consisted of canned stew for them and condensed milk for Ninja. For dessert Tre made drinks from his hoard of Nestlé hot cocoa mix. Simple though the meal was, Lora knew it was one she would never forget.

Then, with Ninja on her lap and Tre listening intently, Lora told the entire story, starting with her departure from the Sanctuary and ending with the fight in the hole. There was only one chair, so they were using the bed as a couch. She cried at times, especially when it came to her father’s death, and Tre put an arm around her.

Then it was his turn, and as Lora listened to the matter-of-fact way that he described his mother’s death and everything that followed, she felt the pain he refused to show. Later, when he described the loss of his finger, she kissed the injured hand.

Finally, when all the stories had been told, they lay side by side and Tre fell asleep. Lora listened to him breathe, felt Ninja settle into the canyon between them, and felt thankful to be alive. Somehow, in a way she’d never felt before, Lora was home.

Chapter Fourteen

Freedom, Wyoming, USA

The Deacon screamed as the hot iron touched his open wound. He was hanging upside down in the barn where Voss’s personal horses, tack, and wagons were kept. Voss was seated on a chair not five feet away. The tip of his cigar glowed as he drew on it. The expedition had been costly but qualified as a success. Thanks to Afton’s militia and his artillery, Hashi had been forced to flee south with her tail between her legs. And, had Voss been able to field all his mercenaries, he might have been able to capture some of her windmills. So there was reason to celebrate. Or should have been.

Unfortunately, he had returned to find that one of his canneries had been looted and his home had been attacked—not for the purpose of stealing his wealth, because there had been no attempt to open the strong room in the basement, but in order to free Sara. And why? Because her brother was a bandit—that was why. The same bandit who had attacked one of his convoys and captured a garbage mine. A man named Crow.

Crow and his gang had a hideout up in the mountains. Everyone agreed on that. But where? Efforts to find the place had been fruitless. But now, with a bona fide gang member hanging upside down in front of him, Voss stood a good chance of finding out. The thought pleased him, and he blew a smoke ring to celebrate. “So,” he said. “You’re going to die, Deacon… You know that. But how long will it take? A day? A week? It’s up to you.”

• • •

Two days after arriving in the Tangle, they left. Tre figured that the worst of the manhunt was over by then. Plus there was work to do if the group wanted to consolidate the gains made over the last few weeks.

And Lora had reason to see Crow too. Having been forced to reveal the Sanctuary’s location to Voss, she feared what would happen next. Her first impulse had been to head north to warn the keepers. But Tre opposed that course of action, pointing out that the chances of getting there alone approached zero.

Lora had to admit that Tre was right but was worried that Voss would send mercenaries north at any moment. And what if Crow wasn’t interested? Then she would have to go for it, and the sooner, the better. Winter was coming, and that would make travel more difficult.

• • •

Tre wasn’t about to let Lora go alone but hadn’t told her that because he knew that two people weren’t likely to survive either. So it would be his task to convince Crow that the trip was a worthy goal.

That and much more was on Tre’s mind as they rode east on Highway 34 until they arrived on the outskirts of Freedom. It was late afternoon by then, so rather than pass through town during daylight hours and risk running into some mercenaries, they elected to take cover in an old barn on the west side of town.

A fire was too risky, so they ate cold beans, washed the meal down with water, and took turns scanning the surrounding countryside with Tre’s binoculars. They could see occasional riders off to the east, but they were too far away to identify with any certainty.

One thing was for sure, however—it would be foolish to take chances. Tre assumed that the wanted posters with his likeness on them were still posted up and down Highway 89. And he’d seen the V-shaped scar tissue on the upper part of Lora’s right arm. So if they were captured, she would be returned to Voss in a matter of hours.

But in spite of the danger, it was an opportunity to talk, and Tre peppered her with questions about the Sanctuary. He wanted to know everything. How did the nuclear power plant work? Where did their water come from? How did they grow their food? Lora knew some of the answers, and he listened intently as she described how the habitat operated.

Once darkness fell, it was time to mount up and pick their way through a patchwork quilt of partially cultivated fields. Dogs barked more than once, and there was a brief pause in response to the sound of a distant gunshot, but other than that the trip across the valley was uneventful.

Once they reached the foothills, Tre led Lora up a trail to a spot where they could water the horses and make camp. Both were tired, so after a snack they laid out their sleeping bags and crawled inside. Tre had his favorite bag, and Lora’s was made out of two blankets folded over and pinned to create an envelope. He waited for her to fall asleep, got up, and stood watch with the M4. Hours passed and the next thing Tre knew, Lora was touching his arm. “Good morning… Here’s a cup of tea.”

Tre opened his eyes, saw that it was daylight, and felt a sense of guilt as he accepted the mug.

Lora smiled. “I appreciate the thought… but next time let’s share the watches.”

Tre nodded but was too embarrassed to look her in the eye.

Breakfast consisted of oatmeal cooked over a can of Sterno. It was reminiscent of the slop served to slaves at Kimble’s garbage mine, but Tre ate it without complaint.

Once the meal was over, it was time to find the horses, remove their hobbles, and saddle up. The trail led steadily upward. They traveled for hours without running into anyone, but Tre knew appearances could be deceiving. Crow’s gang weren’t the only ones hiding in the forest, and Tre didn’t want to lead anyone to the mine, so they stopped occasionally to give the horses a rest and watch their back trail.

Once, while on a hillside, Tre thought he caught a glimpse of a rider passing through a clearing hundreds of feet below. But the image was so fleeting he couldn’t be sure. Maybe it had been an elk. Or nothing at all.

Clusters of pines and aspens bordered the trail, which switchbacked up past small lakes. Some were the result of beaver dams and so calm that they reflected the clouds above. Old bridges still survived in some locations, but more often than not it was necessaryfor the horses to wade through rushing water in order to cross streams. Farther up there were rockslides, where marmots sat on boulders and whistled at each other.

Hours passed, and eventually, as the riders neared the mine, they had to cross an ancient steel bridge. The framework was brown with rust, but the wooden planks were relatively new. White water jumped and foamed below as the horses clopped their way over to the other side.

The far end of the bridge terminated at the edge of a large clearing populated by an army of old stumps, all that remained of the trees that had been cut down for use within the mine. Over time the ground cover had returned, and small shrubs had grown up around the stumps but had yet to hide them.

That was where a woman on a horse materialized out of a small stand of timber. It was Smoke. “Well,” she said archly, “look at what the cat dragged in! Crow sent Fade down to look for you. And what’s this? Are we recruiting boys now?”

Tre turned to Lora. Her hair was hidden under a Stetson. “This is Smoke… one of our scouts. Smoke, this is Lora. She is, or was, one of Voss’s slaves.”

“My mistake,” Smoke said. “Good to meet you, Lora. Go on up… The gang will be glad to see you.”

Tre led Lora up the final stretch of trail to the mine, where both dismounted. Tre’s boots had barely touched the ground when Freak exploded out of the mine, ran over, and kissed him on the mouth. Lora watched with interest as Tre untangled himself. He pointed her way. “Freak, this is Lora, a new member of our group.”

Freak turned to Lora and smiled beatifically. “Toadstools!”

Lora looked at Tre and back again. Her expression softened. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Freak took the horses as Crow appeared. He was smiling. “Sticks! Where the heck have you been? I sent Fade out to find you.”

“We got separated,” Tre explained, “and had a run-in with some mercenaries. So we went into hiding for a couple of days. This is Lora Larsy. She was a slave. As we attacked, she escaped an underground cell.”

Crow extended a hand. “Glad to meet you, Lora. Come in… I’ll bet you’re hungry.” Lora was surprised by how homey a mine could be—and impressed by the food that the man named Hog served her. “While we were raiding the house, Smoke looted one of Voss’s canneries,” Crow explained. “She got away with four wagons of food and hid them. We’re using mules to bring it up here. So tell me… how did you wind up as a slave?”

So Lora gave Crow an abbreviated version of the story. This was her chance to explain the Sanctuary, tell him about the millions of seeds stored there and the need to safeguard them. Or better yet to use them, just as her father and the rest of the leavers had intended. And Lora knew, if she could successfully make her case, more than two thousand lives would be saved as well.

Crow listened intently and asked questions every now and then. “So,” Lora said as she brought the narrative to an end, “I’m hoping you’ll help. It’s imperative that we reach the Sanctuary before Voss does. He has too much power now… What if he acquires all those seeds? Not to mention nuclear power.”

“Maybe we could learn how to build a nuclear power plant!” Tre said eagerly. “Imagine what a difference that would make.”

Crow frowned. “Remember the war? The one that caused all the destruction? It was fought with nuclear weapons.”

But before Tre could respond, Fade burst in. She was disheveled and bleeding from a shoulder wound. “Voss is on his way! He has at least a hundred mercs with him, maybe more. We have no more than an hour to get ready.”

• • •

Tre felt a sudden emptiness in his gut as Crow stood. “Sound the alarm. We’ll meet them at the bridge. Somebody slap a bandage on Fade. She’s leaking.”

There was a plan. It had been in place for a long time. And the plan was to hold any invader down at the river, so every horse they had on hand was brought out, loaded with supplies, and taken down to what Patch referred to as the stump farm. That was where two machine guns and two mortars were set up in prepared positions. Veterans and new recruits alike took cover behind the stumps that lined the edge of the river.

Tre wanted to protect Lora, wanted to send her up to the mine, but knew she wouldn’t countenance that. So all he could do was give her plenty of ammo for the scope-mounted Winchester and hope for the best. He was carrying the M4 plus a hunting rifle on the theory that a long-range weapon could come in handy.

The bandits were still working on their defenses when the first shell came screaming in and exploded in the middle of the clearing. The dark shape of a stump could be seen through a mist of soil as it soared up into the air, paused there, and plummeted to the ground. “The bastards are using artillery,” a man named Fish said. “We’re dead.”

“Keep talking and you will be,” Hog said grimly. “I’ll shoot you myself.”

Crow shouted, “Dig in!” and the gang hurried to obey, some with their bare hands. Tre was fortunate enough to have a shovel and put it to good use knowing that another round could fall at any time. But it was a full four minutes before that occurred, suggesting that the attackers had only one gun. And that made sense, since hauling an artillery piece up into the mountains would be a difficult and time-consuming task.

But as the second round hit, it was closer to the area where Crow’s people were digging in. That could be a matter of luck—or it could mean that the enemy had a spotter. Tre was reminded of the “elk” he’d seen earlier. What if that had been a rider after all? A merc sent to find an observation point from which he could radio reports back to Voss’s gunners?

With that possibility in mind, Tre surrendered the shovel to Lora, brought the scoped rifle up to his shoulder, and began to look around. Where would he conceal himself if he was an observer? On the other side of the river. That was certain. And up high, where he would have a good view. There were trees, of course, many of which would serve. But if given a choice, Tre knew he would prefer a more substantial perch, a place where he wouldn’t have to worry about falling. And as scenery blurred through the scope, Tre saw something that made him swing back. It was a rocky prominence that was home to scrubby evergreens and high enough to overlook the stump farm.

Concerned lest the observer spot him, Tre took cover behind a stump, rested the rifle on top of it, and began an inch-by-inch examination of the target area. He saw nothing at first. But then, as Tre began a second sweep, he observed a momentary flash—as if sunlight had been reflected off a lens!

A shell screamed in from the north, struck the ground, and killed a mortar team. Tre bit his lower lip, glassed the spot he’d been looking at before, and waited. Then he saw it—a slight movement. The rifle seemed to fire itself. The sound echoed off nearby cliffs as a camo-clad body separated itself from the rocks and pitched headfirst into the river below.

A reedy cheer went up as the gang continued to dig in, but it wasn’t long before mercs appeared on the far side of the river and a desultory firefight began. It was as if the mercs had orders to engage but to stay where they were for the moment. The bridge was the obvious objective, so why wait? Another shell exploded, and that suggested an answer. If the mercs crossed the bridge, they could wind up victims of their own artillery fire.

Dirt was still falling when a group of riders appeared on the other side of the bridge. Someone fired at them, and Crow, who was peering through a pair of binoculars, ordered them to stop. “It’s Voss,” Lora said as she peered through her scope, “and Miss Silverton.”

“Miss who?” Tre wanted to know, but the question was preempted by a much-amplified voice.

“This is Luther Voss,” the man said as he raised the bullhorn to his lips. “I wish to speak with Anthony Silverton.”

Tre watched in amazement as Crow rose from his hiding place and stepped out onto the road. He didn’t have a bullhorn, but his voice carried well. “I’m Silverton.”

“I have your sister.” Their horses were side by side nearly touching.

Tre stood, made his way over to Crow’s side, and waited to see what would happen next.

“Cross the bridge,” Voss said, “and give yourself up. You will hang, but your sister will live, as will your followers. I can always use more slaves.”

“Don’t do it!” Sara Silverton shouted as she stood in her stirrups.

Crow was clearly torn. No matter what he did, other people would suffer. Then, as Crow opened his mouth to speak, Voss’s right hand came around. He was holding a pistol and it struck Sara’s forehead. Her body seemed to fall in slow motion. Crow shouted something incomprehensible, drew his pistols, and began to run. His intent was clear: to cross the bridge and kill Voss, regardless of the cost.

But Tre knew it wouldn’t work. The whole idea was to provoke Crow and to bring him into range. Bullets kicked up puffs of dust all around Crow as Tre shot him in the right leg. Tre shouted, “Blow the bridge!” and began to run.

Smoke had the remote. Would she obey? And if she did, would the charges go off? They’d been in place for a long time. There was no way to be certain as Tre grabbed one of Crow’s arms and began to tow him to safety. A woman named Dusty took hold of the other arm.

Both rescuers were thrown to the ground as a massive explosion tore the bridge apart. Splinters of wood whirred through the air like daggers, beams gave way, and wreckage splashed into the river.

The noise scared Odin, who reared up, brought both front feet down, and nearly threw Voss from the saddle. Maybe, if the horse hadn’t been moving, Voss would have noticed the arrow. Freak had fired it high, so that the shaft was little more than a speck at apogee but took on more substance as it fell. Voss felt the full force of impact as the hunting point sank deep into his flesh. Then, as the food lord wondered how such a thing could happen to him, he fell to the ground.

Tre was back on his feet by then. He looked at Freak with open admiration. “That was amazing.”

“He was a bad man,” Freak said, and walked away.

Tre was still in the process of absorbing that when Lora appeared next to him. “They’re pulling back,” she said. “You stopped them.”

“Freak stopped them,” Tre replied. “They’re mercenaries, and without Voss, there’s no reason to fight.”

Lora looked up at him, and just the sight of her was enough to make his heart ache. “I have to go north,” she said.

“Yes, I know,” he replied. His hand found hers, and together they stared across the river. A cold breeze tugged at her hair. Winter had arrived.

Coming soon…

ROGAN’S WORLD

by William C. Dietz

Chapter One

CONFIDENTIAL

Calag Inc. Board Eyes Only

…So by keeping sentient staff to an absolute minimum, and by making maximum use of robotic support systems, the company will minimize expense, maximize profits, and achieve an ROI of at least ten percent. With that in mind I think the board will agree that the negative psychodynamics described by PERSPSYCH STAFF will be more than off-set by Calag’s ability to build market share…

(Excerpted from PRESPERS EYES ONLY MEMO CS/CC-876921.)

Calag Planet 4782/X

Rogan awoke to the sound of rain pounding on the plastiform roof. Not the gentle rain that was scheduled to fall each night, but a downpour that could expose vulnerable roots, and fill rivers to overflowing. Damn.

He threw the covers aside, rolled out of bed, and stood. He had short kinky black hair, a slim body, and a determined chin. He paused to listen for a moment then strode towards the door. It hurried to get out of the way. The dimly lit hallway, living area, and entryway led out onto the porch. Lightning strobed the distant hills and thunder rolled as Rogan padded down the steps to the duracrete veranda. The rain pelted his naked skin. He touched the com link located under the right corner of his jaw. “Wally? You there?”

• • •

Wally, better known to his mother as Walter Prescott Dugan Jr., was in orbit 250-miles above the planet’s surface. And, while he wasn’t asleep, he wasn’t exactly awake either. He released .05 cc worth of stimulant into what remained of his bloodstream and waited for it to kick in. “Yeah, I’m here. Where the hell else would I be?”

Though normally sympathetic Rogan was in no mood to indulge the cyborg’s taste for self pity. “It’s raining Wally. It’s raining hard. What happened?”

Rogan had been known to drink once in awhile, especially when lonely, and Wally wondered if he was sloshed. But a quick check of the instrument package built into Rogan’s house confirmed that it was not only raining, but raining hard. Too hard. Something was wrong. Wally ran a systems check.

Like most agricultural planets Calag 4782/X was equipped with a computer controlled weather system. And, like most ag planets, it worked about half the time. But that didn’t stop the suits from modeling Rogan’s quotas on the optimistic specs provided by the system’s manufacturer--or bombarding him with nasty memos when production levels dropped. All of which added up to a planetary manager (PM) who stood in the rain and drank too much.

Wally had been linked to the computer so long he didn’t know which part of his mental capacity was his own and which part belonged to the company’s Systems Group. And it really didn’t matter since an accident had destroyed his body and reduced him to little more than a brain. Which when combined with the latest in bioelectronics made good money by living in orbit and supervising the planet’s electro-mechanical systems.

Once retrieved and analyzed the data said it all. The cyborg kept it short. “A hurricane veered off its projected track and brushed the coast two hundred miles east of Chateau Rogan. The good news is that the rain should taper off in an hour or so.”

• • •

Rogan held out his hand. Had the rain slackened? He wasn’t sure. Well, nothing could be done till first light. He looked upwards and blinked when rain drops hit his eyes. “Thanks, Wally. Sorry if I was a jerk.”

Wally smiled, or would have had he been equipped with lips. “Forget it. Besides…who ever heard of a PM that wasn’t a jerk?”

Rogan laughed, shivered as a light breeze slid across his skin, and headed for the house. His feet were big, too big some people said, and water splashed away from them. The house ate him in a single gulp. It was huge and empty. Most of his peers had families, including a mate, two or three kids, and a menagerie of pets. That’s why management built identical six bedroom mini-mansions on all of their ag planets. It was the kind of “one size fits all” solution that strategic planners loved. The problem was that the empty rooms served to amplify Rogan’s loneliness. He considered a drink but rejected the idea in favor of lights and music.

The central computer heard his command, turned the lights up, and triggered a Johnny Cash album. It was hundreds of years old but the sound was crystal clear. The house comp automatically passed the sound to Wally who didn’t enjoy retro music but liked to spy on Rogan. And so it was that the cyborg watched the sun rise over the western hemisphere to the strains of “I Walk The Line.”

Rogan entered the shower, ordered the water on, and savored the immediate warmth. Then he inched the water temperature up until it was just short of scalding. It was there, under the rush of hot water, that Rogan had some of his best ideas. And, what with an already weak wheat harvest and a rogue rainstorm, he could use some. None were forthcoming however. So Rogan left the shower cleaner but no wiser. A robot scooted in behind Rogan to scrub the shower down.

Clothes weren’t a necessity since Rogan was the only human being on the planet and the climate was generally temperate. But he wore some anyway. His usual uniform consisted of a faded University of Nulon T-shirt, blue shorts, and hiking boots.

In keeping with the rest of the house the kitchen was enormous. The auto chef served him a cup of tea and a bagel with cream cheese. The same breakfast he ate every day. Rogan carried the food to the work station he had established on the kitchen table. The house had a fully equipped office but it was lonely in there. The kitchen was warmer and smelled like food.

A quick check of his email showed that commodity prices were holding steady, animal protein was up a point, and metals were off a bit. It seemed that the company had named yet another vice president to join the army of executives on the corporate golf course, the competition had announced the release of a new vegetable, and the Nulon Alumni Association wanted a donation. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

Rogan took a bite of bagel, sipped his tea, and queried his private mailbox. Maybe, just maybe, there had been a reply to his ad. Nothing. Just a cursor blinking on and off. Rogan sighed, ran a check on the weather system, and carried his dishes to the sink.

• • •

Up in space and half a world away Wally shook his nonexistent head. He had read Rogan’s email at the same time Rogan did. The ad was a bad idea and the cyborg was glad that no one had responded to it. He couldn’t say that of course, not to Rogan’s face, but that’s the way he felt. The last thing he needed was a stranger wandering around, consuming Rogan’s time, and getting in the way.

Wally ordered one of his minisats to focus a telephoto lens on the front door of the house and waited for Rogan to emerge. The optics were so good that if his friend had a zit the cyborg would know.

• • •

Rogan blinked as he stepped out into bright sun light. Carefully mowed green grass slid down to meet an artificial lake. Bio-engineered insects skittered across the surface of the water and occasionally there was a splash as one of the pond’s trout had a snack. None of the fish had reason to fear a hook since Rogan lacked both the time and temperament to go fishing.

The air smelled fresh and clean. Rogan took a deep breath and felt his spirits rise. This was the part of the job that he liked the best. Roaming the planet and solving the fantastic array of problems that came his way. He touched the link. “So, Wally… What’s hot?”

The cyborg was ready with an itinerary. “I figured you’d want to survey the flood damage off the top. After that you can check on some stranded aniforms, hit the restart button on Harvey 451, and eyeball the apple harvest.”

Rogan frowned. “Hit the restart on Harvey 451? What the hell for? Send a droid.”

“Sorry,” Wally replied, “No can do. The idiots in purchasing bought Harveys 450, 451, and 452 at an auction when Nugumi Manufacturing went under. They got ‘em cheap, real cheap, but without any mods. So even though the droids were able to fix Harvey 451 it takes a living breathing bio bod to fire one up. Think of it as job security.”

Rogan was still swearing as he cut across the lawn to the duracrete apron and entered the support building. It was cool inside and smelled of lubricants. A number of transportation options were available to him, including a pair of twelve foot tall exoskeletons, three-wheeled ATVs, and a couple of grav trucks. Including the beat up unit he used almost every day.

Three robots had been assigned to maintain the equipment and the lead unit came out to greet him. In a fruitless attempt to make the spider-like machine seem more human Rogan had named it “Bob” and spray painted the name across the top of its otherwise pristine housing. He nodded in the droid’s general direction. “Morning, Bob. How’s it hanging?”

Like most of the planet’s more complex robots Bob had the capacity to learn what was important and what wasn’t. Meaningless greetings had no relevance to his duties and were ignored. “All vehicles are functional. Would you like a detailed report?”

Rogan walked by and servos whined as Bob turned to follow him. “Thanks, but no thanks. No offense old buddy… But your reports are boring as hell.”

If Bob was offended he gave no sign of it and watched impassively as Rogan circled the truck looking for telltale leaks or other problems. There were none.

So Rogan checked to make sure that his emergency supplies and tools were aboard and properly stowed. Nothing made him more angry than to wind up a thousand miles from nowhere minus a critical tool. The truck was about twenty-five feet long, twelve feet wide, and shaped like a wedge. It could reach an altitude of three hundred feet, cruise at four hundred miles an hour, and carry a five ton pay load. And with an entire planet to supervise that made the truck the most useful vehicle at his disposal. Sometimes, in order to cope with problems on the far side of the world, he was gone for weeks at a time.

Rogan palmed the hatch. There was a whining sound as it opened. The interior had a Spartan feel. A tool belt, a box of spare parts, and two bottles of water occupied the seldom used passenger seat. There were two bunks aft of that, a cramped lavatory, and a tiny galley.

Rogan felt around under an old leather jacket and found that the half empty bottle of Duncan’s Prime was right where he’d left it. Good. He wouldn’t have a drink. Not this early. But it was nice to know it was there.

Rogan ran his eyes over the control panel, started the ignition sequence, and listened as the anti-grav units wound up. They sounded nice and tight. It took thirty seconds for the power board to turn green and another thirty to complete a systems check.

The hum turned to a steady whine as Rogan taxied out of the support building and into the glare. The canopy darkened to compensate. There weren’t any other aircraft on the planet but Rogan went through the motions of checking with the air traffic computer before lifting off. He eyed the screens arrayed in front of him and waited until all of the buildings had dwindled to the size of toys before advancing the throttle. Having approved the coordinates downloaded from Wally he switched to autopilot.

It was tempting to place the seat in the reclining position and take a nap but his quarterly reports were due in three days. Rogan hit the terminal release, pulled the unit over his lap, and entered his access code. The resulting “Good morning Dan Rogan” appeared in front of Wally as well. The cyborg looked, gave the mental equivalent of a yawn, and turned his attention elsewhere.

Rogan leaned back in his chair. “Verbal mode please.”

The computer had a soft androgynous voice. “Verbal mode confirmed.”

“Quarterly reports, page three, harvest totals.”

A page of closely worded boilerplate flooded the screen with blanks where the totals and supporting graphics would go. “Find and enter current totals by category.”

The reply came quickly. “Before or after spoilage, wastage, and loss?”

Rogan gave the question some thought. His totals should reflect spoilage, wastage, and loss since that was what the company would actually receive and be able to use. But he was running behind his quotas. A fact made worse by the storm and the higher figure would look better to the suits. Their computers would detect the deception and produce enough exception reports to kill a forest of trees but the strategy would buy some time. Time he needed to boost production.

Half an hour later the grav truck slowed and descended towards the ground below. Rogan was part way through a carefully worded response to an interdepartmental interrogatory regarding his “profligate use of fertilizer” when Wally interrupted. “Time to run your recorders if you want aerials of the flooding.”

There were times when Rogan resented the fact that the cyborg spent a lot of time both literally and figuratively looking over his shoulder but this wasn’t one of them. He could use the aerials to illustrate the extent of the damage and support his request for lower quotas. Not to mention the fact that the suits loved flashy reports. That’s why the PMs vied with each other to submit sexy multimedia productions. A competition Rogan detested but was forced to participate in. So he started the truck’s recorders and watched his screens. As usual the multi-angle computer enhanced video looked better than what he could see through the window.

The river known as “tributary NH/Q17-3514” had overflowed its banks. The water covered a field and threatened to drown the seeds planted there. That was bad, but not as bad as it could have been, since he had taken out some insurance by investing in high grade AA-1 squash seed. Unlike the cheaper stuff double A could sense the low oxy levels associated with flooding and change its own metabolism to compensate. So what had been a risky decision was going to pay off. Would the squash counters give him credit for that? Hell no.

The grav truck settled onto a mound with a distinct thump. Rogan checked to make sure all systems were on “standby” and exited the vehicle. The hillock was twenty-five feet higher than the surrounding field and naked of plant growth. There were fifty-seven mounds in all. A fact that Rogan was well aware of. He had even gone to the trouble of referencing the planet’s voluminous Terraforming report only to find the hillocks had been written off as “…an unusual manifestation of glacial scrubbing.”

The theory sounded reasonable since Calag 4782/X had been an ice world prior to Earth normal Terraforming. But the uniformity of the mounds continued to bother him. In fact he was determined to slice one in half and see what was inside when he found the time.

At least slightly cheered by the fact that the flooding could have been worse Rogan reentered the grav truck and took off. The stranded aniforms were the next item on his itinerary and not too far away. By maintaining a low altitude and following a swiftly flowing river Rogan had little difficulty locating them. The flooding had created a temporary island and a herd of aniforms had taken refuge there.

These particular creatures were bovine derived. They were white with black spots, and although heavily modified, still bore a resemblance to the ancient cattle from which they had evolved. But while their heads had a cow-like appearance, generations of bioengineers had transformed their bodies into huge hippo-like protein factories, each having tremendous muscle mass and short stubby legs. Legs that had to little more than carry them to their food or away from a flood.

After wandering in among them Rogan spotted a large female that had suffered a laceration on her right flank during the storm. She was quite docile and made no attempt to escape as he closed the wound and sprayed sealer over it. Then he ordered Wally to send a grav barge loaded with specially formulated feed to the island. Once the water receded the aniforms would be free to roam.

Rogan hurried to the truck. It was a one-hour flight to the vast wheat field where Harvey 451 stood dreadfully idle. Rogan used the time to finish his response to the fertilizer interrogatory, lied on Wally’s quarterly fitness report, and checked his off-planet email. There were no replies to his ad.

The truck slowed and Rogan looked out the side window. The wheat covered more than a thousand square miles of carefully contoured land. Land that was supposed to produce part of the 600 million tons the company expected Rogan to deliver that year. The problem being that he was some 2 million tons short because of the unrealistically high quotas the suits had given him.

The unharvested wheat, all of which was common 7.3 or T.aestivum 7.3, was a wonderful golden brown color. Rogan never tired of watching the way that it danced in the wind.

Most of the harvesters were little more than reddish orange dots on the distant horizon. Each one had left a mile-wide swath of stubble in its wake, except for Harvey 451 that is, which stood like a rust colored island in a sea of amber.

As he landed Rogan cursed the idiots who had designed the machine, the fools who had purchased it, and scumbags who sent it to his world. As the drive units spooled down Rogan jumped to the ground and began to wade through the wheat. It swished against his legs and left a coating of dust.

Harvey 451 stood strong and silent, as much a result of mechanical evolution as the aniforms were of genetic breeding. As Rogan jumped onto the first rung of a ladder, and began to climb, he could feel the slight vibration caused by the harvester’s power plant.

A small eight legged robot beeped a greeting as the human arrived on deck one. One of four machines permanently assigned to Harvey 451, the droid was equipped for welding and waved a laser equipped arm towards the human. Rogan nodded politely. “I’m here to activate this monster. Where’s the switch?”

“You’re here to activate this monster,” the robot chirped agreeably. “The switch is located an inch and half to the right of the emergency shut-down control.”

Rogan gritted his teeth. “Lead me to the switch.”

“I will lead you to the switch,” the robot said. “Please follow.”

The robot walked on tip toe, its long spindly legs carrying it along at a pretty good clip, its head rotating in 360-degree circles as it scanned the environment. Rogan followed the machine over a grating covered walk-way, up a vertical ladder, over a bridge, through an access door, up a short flight of stairs, and into a cramped control room. It had been designed for emergency use so there were no creature comforts. Not even a seat.

Now that Rogan could see the layout it was a simple matter to locate the switch, remove the access panel beneath it, and pull a handful of brightly colored spaghetti out into the light. After tracing the wires and checking them against the three dimensional schematic that the robot projected into the air--Rogan hooked them together in a way that would bypass the harvey’s on-off switch. The next time the machine went offline the maintenance droids would be able to restart the harvester by themselves.

As Rogan stood he felt the deck lurch under his feet and realized how stupid he’d been. The gigantic machine was rolling forwards and the grav truck was sitting in the way. The emergency shut-off button was right there, waiting for his fist to slam down on it, but a system-by-system restart would take an hour. An hour that would put the harvest even further behind.

It took more than a minute for Rogan to retrace his steps, descend the ladder, and jump to the ground. His legs pumped like pistons and the race was on. The truck was just ahead. But the harvester was rumbling along right behind him its jaws gobbling wheat. All it would take was one misstep and it would be over.

Then Rogan was there. He ran the length of the truck and scrambled into the cockpit. He had left the vehicle on stand-by and the response was instantaneous. One moment the giant harvester was nipping at the truck’s rear end and the next moment Rogan was airborne and climbing like hell. He had leveled off when Wally spoke in his head. “That was impressive, but not especially bright.”

Rogan scowled. “Who the hell asked you?”

Silence prevailed until Rogan arrived over valley NH/Q23-7819.

A long slow river meandered down its middle. The water was higher than normal but part of a different drainage system and less active than tributary NH/Q17-3514 had been.

Orchards bordered both sides of the river. And, with their own needs in mind, machines had laid the trees out in orderly rows. Sunlight flashed off metal as an eight armed robo picker plucked apples from branches. Rogan lowered the grav truck onto a duracrete pad and checked with Wally. His anger had dissipated by then but he still sounded gruff. “So, give me the numbers.”

Wally was ready and rattled off a long series of statistics including the average number of apples per tree, projected shipping weight, long term mutation rates, vitamin and nutritional values, picking speed, and how those figures compared with previous crops.

Rogan left the truck and walked towards the nearest trees. Weed suppressing grass had been planted between the trunks and gave slightly under his boots. Insects that were designed to cross pollinate the surrounding plants and provide food for Type 1 fliers buzzed around his head. Rogan didn’t mind in the least. What had started as an expression of restrained hope turned to a grin and quickly grew into a smile. The apple harvest was better than predicted. Something was going right for a change!

Rogan approached a heavily laden branch, plucked a cube shaped apple from it, and examined the fruit for flaws. There were none. The shape was perfect for packing and transshipment.

While the pale green skin was resistant to the effects of mechanized picking it still yielded to his bite. The apple’s interior was firm, white, and wonderfully crisp. Juice flooded his mouth as he chewed. Rogan realized he was hungry. So he ate the rest of the apple too… Cinnamon flavored seeds and all.

Then with a lightheartedness he hadn’t felt in days, he made his way to the truck and took off. It was only later, while sitting in the big empty house, that Rogan poured himself a drink.

Other books by William C. Dietz

The McCade Series: Galactic Bounty (War World), Imperial Bounty, Alien Bounty, McCade’s Bounty, McCade for Hire (Includes Galactic Bounty and Imperial Bounty), McCade on the Run (Includes Alien Bounty and McCade’s Bounty)

The Drifter Series: Drifter, Drifter’s Run, Drifter’s War

The Corvan duology: Matrix Man, and Mars Prime

The Original Legion Series: Legion of the Damned, The Final Battle, By Blood Alone, By Force of Arms, For More Than Glory, For Those Who Fell, When All Seems Lost, and When Duty Calls and A Fighting Chance

The Prequel Legion Series Andromeda’s Fall, Andromeda’s Choice (December 2013), and Andromeda’s War (December 2014)

The Sauron Duology, Deathday and Earthrise

The Runner Duology, Runner, and Logos Run

The Empire Duology, At Empire’s Edge (October 2009), and Bones of Empire (October 2010)

Singles: Freehold, Prison Planet, Where the Ships Die, Bodyguard, Steelheart

Thrillers: Snake Eye, Ejecta (Kindle only)

With other authors: Cluster Command, with Dave Drake

Gaming related books: Soldier for the Empire, Dark Forces, Rebel Agent, Dark Forces, Jedi Knight, Dark Forces/Lucas Films, Berkley Publishing/Darkhorse Comics

Halo, The Flood/Tor/Bungie

Hitman: Enemy Within/Del Rey/Eidos

Resistance: The Gathering Storm/Del Rey/Sony-Insomniac.

Resistance: A Hole in the Sky/Del Rey/Sony-Insomniac.

Heaven’s Devils/Pocket/Blizzard.

Mass Effect: Deception/Del Rey/BioWare

Games Written: Legion of the Damned for i-Phone, i-Touch, and i-Pad from Offworld Games

Resistance: Burning Skies for the Sony PS Vita, with Mike Bates, from Nihilistic

About the Author

New York Times bestselling author William C. Dietz has published more than forty novels some of which have been translated into German, French, Russian, Korean and Japanese. Dietz also wrote the script for the Legion of the Damned game (i-Phone, i-Touch, & i-Pad) based on his book of the same name—and co-wrote SONY’s Resistance: Burning Skies game for the PS Vita.

Dietz grew up in the Seattle area, spent time with the Navy and Marine Corps as a medic, graduated from the University of Washington, lived in Africa for half a year, and has traveled to six continents. Dietz has been employed as a surgical technician, college instructor, news writer, television producer and Director of Public Relations and Marketing for an international telephone company.

Dietz is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Writer’s Guild, and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. He and his wife live near Gig Harbor in Washington State where they enjoy traveling, kayaking, and reading books. For more information about William C. Dietz and his work visit: williamcdietz.com

Copyright

Copyright © 2013 by William C. Dietz

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the author or publisher.