Authors: Helen Stringer
For Jeff Anderson
PARADIGM. Copyright © 2013 by Helen Stringer
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced in any medium or used in any
manner whatsoever without the express written permission
of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations
in a book review. or article
Printed in the United States of America
First Printing, 2013
Table of Contents
he sky was blue
. That brittle, porcelain shade of blue only found in really cold places. And this was a really cold place. Admittedly, there were occasions when the snow would melt and a few hardy plants would poke their heads above the permafrost and squeeze out a flower or two, but most of the time it was a symphony of white punctuated only by the hard grey outcroppings of stone on the south sides of the mountains.
It was here that people had built—small, oddly-shaped homes clinging to the cliffs for dear life, refuges for a people accustomed to hard work and small rewards. They had lived in the silence of the mountains for generation upon generation. Families for whom the loudest sound to penetrate the crystalline air was the daily ringing of the great temple bell.
But today there was another sound. A rhythmic clicking in the air. A sound that was as familiar to the people who lived in the great cities on the flatlands as the roar of engines or the laughter of children, but to the mountain people it was a new sound and they emerged from their houses and scanned the horizon, their weathered faces creased with anxiety. New things were rarely good in this part of the world.
The monks in the temple heard it too, and poked their heads out of the small red-painted windows, their shaved heads glistening in the afternoon sun. Some of the older ones had retreated here from the cities to the calm of the great old temple and they knew the sound.
It was helicopters. They watched as the mosquito-like craft appeared from behind the nearest mountain, then sighed with relief. There were only two. What danger could there be in two? They left the windows and returned to their devotions.
But years of silent meditation had made them forget that danger is not simply a matter of numbers, but also of skill and intent.
The birds set down in the middle of the great courtyard and disgorged their passengers. The first was a woman, tall and fair, with close-cropped hair and a long scar down one side of her face. With her was a man, even more battle-scarred than his commander, with one titanium arm and a prosthetic imager where once his right eye had been. The woman barked orders that the abbot could barely hear in his aerie at the topmost part of the temple, but no sooner had she spoken than the shooting began.
And then he knew what they had come for.
He turned, hoisted up his robes and ran down the stairs, flight after flight of uneven wooden steps. He took them by twos and threes, running faster than he had in decades. He reached the sanctum, bowed once, and raced to the great altar where all the most valuable gifts were kept. The ancient stone table was covered in layers of silks and laden with items of gold, silver and precious stones, each one a gift from grateful pilgrims and many of them hundreds of years old. But he was not looking for any of those. He stood on his toes, reached toward the back and retrieved a
plain metal box, small and simply decorated
, then turned toward the stairs once more.
It was too late. There was a crash, the sound of weapons and the great double doors of the sanctum flew open. The woman and the man didn’t hesitate, but marched straight for the altar. Two monks who had been praying near the back, ran forward and blocked their way.
“This is a holy place!”
“For you maybe,” said the woman, her eyes hard and her mouth a cruel smirk. “Though it looks like you boys haven’t been praying hard enough.”
The man with the titanium arm grunted in amusement.
“I’ve come for the casket,” she continued. “But you knew that.”
“We will die before we let you profane these offerings!”
The woman shot both monks, then stepped over them and strode to where the abbot stood, his arms cradling the box.
“Easy or hard?” she asked.
The abbot stared at her. If it had been anyone else, he would have tried to talk, to convince his attacker that she should settle for the temple’s gold and silver and leave this plain wooden box behind. But he knew who this was. This was Carolyn Bast and she was not a woman who could be reasoned with. Even here in the high mountains they had heard stories of her and her company and none of them ended well.
He held out the box. Carolyn Bast ran a black-gloved hand over the decorated surface, the shadow of a smile flickering on her face, then took the box, turned and marched back up the aisle towards the doors, stepping over the fallen monks as if they were no more than wrinkles in a carpet. One of the monks groaned and moved slightly. Carolyn stopped and looked at him.
“Finish him, Setzen. Finish all of them.”
She strode out into the brittle daylight as her lieutenant killed the abbot with a single shot and delivered the
coup de grace
to the injured monk before following his commander out of the sanctum.
Outside there was more gunfire, more screams, and then the steady sound of the helicopter blades as the marauders lifted into the sky.
Not the silence of peace and meditation, but the heavy silence of death.
And laughter. A wheezy chuckle from somewhere beneath the altar. The silken coverings moved and an old, old man crept out and crawled over to the body of the abbot. He rummaged through the corpse’s clothing until he found a small embroidered bag that had been hung around the senior monk’s neck on a yellow silk cord.
“Not so clever after all, are you, Carolyn Bast?” he chuckled. “No. Not so clever at all.”
He opened the bag and dropped its contents into his palm. It was a small bronze key.
ow this, ma’am, is the dee-luxe Cuisinart
. Has all the bells and whistles. With this, you can make anything your heart desires. You, ma’am—do you remember the last time you whipped up some home-made mayonnaise and you just couldn’t get the oil to emulsify right? Or you, miss—ever have a problem with unevenly julienned zucchini?”
Sam lowered his book. He was sitting on the ground at the front of the car, leaning back on the dusty chrome of the bumper. The earth was warm and the fender hot against his back. He looked toward the rear of the car where Nathan was giving it his all. The trunk of the old GTO was propped open with a broken hockey stick and displayed an impressive array of toasters, mixers, coffee grinders, kitchen grills and other small appliances, some of which were still in their original boxes, though most had been well-used and dumped. Nathan had managed to tease the majority into working, though Sam was fairly sure they wouldn’t last much longer than the trail of dust they left driving out of town.
Not that they were in a town now, of course. This was one of those little clusters of houses and barns that littered the Wilds, where safety was most definitely in numbers. There were no actual fortifications, but a couple of rickety watch towers kept a close eye on the approach roads, and Sam was willing to bet there were more than a few well-stocked bunkers under the sun-bleached clapboard houses. The people who had wandered out to watch the show looked tired and spent, as if all their energy was expended in simply staying alive. Gaunt women, slack-jawed men and hollow-eyed children watched as Nathan spun his line again and again without landing a single fish. Sam was impressed by his resilience, but he couldn’t help feeling that this really wasn’t the right place to be hawking aspirational kitchen equipment.
Nathan turned back to the trunk and grinned at Sam, rolling his eyes.
“Okay…” he muttered, “Keep moving. Yes!”
He hauled an old George Foreman grill out of the deeper recesses, “Anyone of you ever see one of these? A genuine antique in full working order! A George Forman grill!”
Sam shook his head. He hadn’t been traveling with Nathan for long. Only since Utah. He’d noticed him standing on the side of what had been a highway but was now just a collection of potholes punctuated by the occasional lonely piece of asphalt, wistful testament to a time when the road had been a glistening black ribbon and people had driven so fast that they’d needed speed limits and traffic cops.
Nathan was short and fair, with the sort of pale freckled skin that would not hold up well under the unrelenting desert sun, yet he hadn’t even broken a sweat as he stood next to his giant suitcase, his jacket over one arm, the other extended, thumb-out, optimistic of a ride.
Sam had driven past, it being his policy not to pick up anyone.
Actually, his policy was not to even talk to people, if he could possibly avoid it. There were too many crazy ones wandering around on the highways and byways of the Wilds, most of whom would think nothing of killing a boy for entertainment, let alone for a fancy red car. Admittedly, his was a very old fancy red car, and consumed a staggering quantity of gas, but still, it was wheels, which was more than most people had.
He’d won it in a small town outside of Chicago. There had been a huge jar full of beans and you were supposed to guess the number. According to the locals, the jar of beans had been sitting there gathering dust for five years. Once, someone had tried to steal the car, but it was owned by one of those ornery old types, the kind whose grandparents had noticed when the weather started changing and just went and stocked up on everything they thought anyone would need: food, weapons, gas and cars. The would-be thieves didn’t get far.
The ‘68 GTO was surplus to requirements, but it had more than earned its keep in the two pounds of food you had to pay to take a guess at the beans in the jar. Of course, Sam hadn’t needed to guess. He knew exactly how many beans there were the moment he saw the jar. That was three years ago. He’d been fourteen then and needed booster blocks on the pedals. Now he was closing in on six feet and had to push the seat back to accommodate his legs.
Still, even though he was taller now and three years more experienced at surviving in the Wilds, he still didn’t own a gun, and knew better than to pick up hitchhikers. But there was something about Nathan. He was one of those people who always has a sure-fire-can’t-fail plan to get rich. Needless to say, some of his plans were a good deal less honest than others, and he was certainly more than a little wearing at times, but his optimism was infectious and even the arguments helped pass the time between settlements.
Sam turned away from Nathan’s increasingly desperate efforts to sell something, anything, to these people, and went back to his book. It was a detective novel, set in San Francisco in the olden days, and was full of short sentences and witty dialogue. He liked the book, but his head had started to ache slightly. Probably because of the heat. He made a mental note to get a hat.
He looked up. A small girl was standing just to his left. She wore an old pink t-shirt with a patchwork pony on it, and a pair of the dirtiest jeans he’d ever seen. She looked about eight, with tangled brown hair and suspicious eyes.
“Working on the unified field theory. You?”
The little girl shoved a finger up her left nostril and stared.
“Ah, pushing the borders of neuroscience, I see.”
The girl just stood there.
“I’m reading a book,” said Sam. “This isn’t where the show is. Go listen to the nice man.”
“What’s it called?”
Sam sighed and held up the book.
“Look, can’t you read?” he said impatiently, then immediately felt guilty. “Oh, sorry. I guess not.”
“’Course I can read!” said the girl indignantly.
“Oh. Good. Well done.”
He tried to return to his book, but the little girl was having none of it.
“Mother taught me.”
Sam gave up. He put the book down and smiled at the girl.
“Your mother? Well, that’s nice. What are you—“
“No,” interrupted the girl, a note of irritation creeping into her voice. “Not
She turned and gestured toward a small house, built in the shade of a scraggly scrub oak, and for a second Sam didn’t know what she was pointing at. Then he saw it, strapped to the chimney and sparkling in the sun—a discreet oval dish. And as soon as he saw it, he realized that every house in the settlement probably had one too. How could he not have noticed?
He stood up, shrugged on his coat, shoved the book into one of the many deep pockets and strode to the back of the car. Nathan was now expounding on the virtues of a pocket generator.
“This little baby’ll give you fifteen hours on only—”
Sam plucked the generator from his hand, tossed it into the trunk and slammed it shut.
“Time to go.”
“What? But I was just—”
“Time to go.”
“Sorry, folks,” said Nathan, simultaneously smiling at the crowd and glaring at Sam, “It looks like we have to go, but I can take orders, if there’s anything—”
One of the men spat on the ground and shook his head, “We don’t need none of that fancy stuff. We just need light bulbs. Got any of them?”
Sam marched to the front of the car, got in and started the engine. He could see Nathan in the rear view, still talking to the people, so he peeled out, sped about a hundred feet along the road and waited.
A few moments later the passenger door was yanked open and Nathan jumped in, looking like thunder. Sam didn’t care. He hit the gas.
“Are you out of your mind? What is wrong with you? I
them. I really
“No you didn’t. They weren’t going to buy anything.”
“So now you’re a salesman.”
“Look on the roofs.”
“The roofs of the houses. Look.”
Nathan squinted out of the back, but all he could see was dust. He squirmed around and stuck his head out of the passenger window.
“Okay,” he said, sitting down again, “So they’ve got dishes. So what?”
“Man, if I’d known how whacked you were I’d have left you where I found you.”
“It’s my car. I found you.”
“Yeah, well, walking’s starting to look pretty good.”
Sam slammed on the brakes.
“A joke! It was a joke! Jeeze!”
Nathan rolled up the window and sat hunched in his seat, gazing ahead while the big car ate up the miles.
“We’re gonna need gas soon.”
Nathan just stared at the road.
“I heard you..”
“I thought I’d head for Hillford.”
Sam waited. He knew Nathan wouldn’t be able to resist.
“So,” muttered Nathan, right on cue, “What are you going to buy it with?”
“If you think you’re exchanging any of my stock for gas, you can just think again.”
Sam finished pumping the gas and got back into the car. Nathan waited until he’d started the engine again.
“Toaster oven and a pocket generator.”
“The toaster oven? Sam, it took me nearly a week to get that thing running! And would you stop giving away the pocket generators?”
“They’re really good. People want them. You should give up on the used kitchen stuff and concentrate on making things from scratch.”
“How do you know what people want? You’re never around when I’m selling. You just sit there with your nose in some book or other. You know what people want? What they really want? Light bulbs.”
“Yeah. Stop here. We need some food.”
Sam pulled up outside a small general store, loped to the back of the car and popped the trunk.
“See if they’ve got any candy.”
Nathan grabbed a blender and a panini maker and headed inside. Sam leaned against the car for a few moments, then opened the door, yanked out the cigar lighter and walked away up the street. At some point in its long life, one of the GTO’s many owners had connected the ignition wire to the lighter so that the car wouldn’t start unless the lighter was pushed in. As anti-theft devices went, it was simple and very effective, and had proved its worth more than once.
Sam ambled along, glancing in shop windows and watching as people hurried through town on their way home. It felt nice. It felt like, if you squinted your eyes just a bit, everything was normal. Like an old photograph.
It wasn’t, of course. For one thing, the sky was a weird kind of yellow and there was a vaguely acrid smell in the air. Sam had heard rumors of places where the sky was still blue. High in the mountains, they said. But he’d never seen it. A blue sky. How weird is that?
He strolled past a store that had an actual glass window and stopped at the sight of his own reflection. It was always a surprise. Ever since the last wing mirror was stolen from the car, he’d only had the rear-view to go by, and that only told him that his once-blond hair was now dark brown and that one of his eyes was blue and one green. The distorted glimpses of himself in streams and lakes never really told him much about what the rest of him looked like. Not that it really mattered, but it was strange. His face had become long and angular and he was tall in a spidery kind of way. It was as if a stranger was peering out at him from inside the store.
He was still staring at himself when he heard a noise. It was one he knew all too well—the sound of guns being cocked. He glanced around, but the street was still quiet. People were just going about their business.
“Hand it over.”
The first voice was little more than a growl. The second was female and completely calm.
“Look, girly, we’re the ones with the guns. Hand it over.”
“You should probably walk away while you still can.”
“What? You’ve been out in the sun too long.”
Sam smiled and walked to the corner. He had to see who this frail was. He peeked up the alley. It was narrow and littered with old boxes and trash cans. At the far end there was a high chain-link fence and the walls on either side were old brick, unpunctuated by windows or convenient doors.
The gunmen were standing with their backs to him, blocking the way out. There were three of them, all armed to the teeth, and although Sam could only see their backs, he knew what their faces would be like. The Wilds were full of men just like them—hard men who had long since lost any feelings of pity or empathy, who lived only for themselves and scavenged off anyone unlucky enough to cross their path.
“I suggest you walk away right now.”
She seemed to be talking to the gunmen, but Sam knew she was speaking to him. He’d seen a slight movement of her eyes. Dark, steely eyes that saw everything.
The gunmen glanced at each other. The girl had been leaning against an old motorbike, a Norton Commando, dusty and much-repaired, but she stood up now, her feet slightly apart. She was tall and slender with black hair pulled back from her face into about six long thick braids that swung around her head like Medusa’s snakes. She was dressed in black and wore a blue and grey poncho that she had thrown back over her shoulders. Her hands hung at her sides and Sam guessed that she usually wore a gun. She watched the men with the intensity of a hawk on a branch waiting for its prey, and Sam found himself feeling a little sorry for the gunmen.
Then they made their move. But even as they pulled back on the triggers, the girl rolled, and the bullets found only air and the brick wall beyond. The men were surprised, but not for long. The girl’s legs spun beneath them and all three slammed to the ground, a few swift movements of her gloved hands and they were unconscious. The girl brushed herself off and glared at Sam.