Authors: Tom D Wright
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Post-Apocalyptic
A group of eight men approaches us casually along the edge of the cutout, apparently looking for a good place to cross. Three of them are on horseback. Danae has proven the effectiveness of her weapon, so Little Crow indicates to Danae and me which riders we should each target. Malsum crawls up to crouch down alongside Little Crow, her tail twitching with anticipation.
Four men—including the rider leading the group—have the dark hair and swarthy complexion typically associated with people of Mexican or Central American origins. The two other riders are White, one of the men on foot is Asian and the last one is Black.
Just as the composition of the Strohomish survivalists has evolved, so also the Hombres are Hispanic in origin, but over the decades they have become as diverse as any other group, and just as complicated. When less than one person out of a thousand remains alive, survival has a way of making racial distinctions insignificant.
They are about twenty yards away when I rise and take a step forward out of the shrubs, holding my free hand up in the universal, open gesture of peaceful intent. But my crossbow dangles from my other hand as a sign that I am not stupid, either.
“Stop, don’t come any closer,” I warn them, and the men on foot stop while the horsemen pull up. “Aquí no hay nada mas que la muerte.”
One of the mounted Hombres laughs. “Estas mintiendo culero. Mátalo.” He gestures toward me, and his men rush forward.
I am not sure what the exact translation would be, but his intent is clear enough for me. I swing up my crossbow as I kneel to present a smaller target, and take out the outspoken leader. Little Crow lets loose an arrow while Danae stands and whips her sling over her head in one fluid motion. The three men on horseback drop before the group even realizes that I am not alone.
The horses mill about in confusion among the remaining men, who scream curses at us as they dash forward to attack. Then Malsum bounds over the edge with an unnerving roar which combines the wail of a banshee with the deep rumbling of a racing diesel engine. The enemies’ horses shriek and bolt. Two of the men flee, screaming as well; Malsum takes off after them.
The other three race toward us, and one draws a pistol while I am still reloading my crossbow. He points the weapon at me, but before he can shoot, Danae’s sling whistles, and the man flops like a dropped puppet, a stone planted in his forehead.
Quickly, Little Crow and I dispatch the other two Hombres. Aside from a slash on my forearm which I don’t remember getting, we emerge unscathed.
Danae scrambles back down into the ravine to tend to our frightened horses, while Little Crow and I check our opponents. Of the eight men, four are dead, two are badly injured and Malsum chased off the last two men who were on foot. The rider-less horses are just receding dots in the distance, so we are not too worried about pursuit.
After a quick examination of the bodies reveals nothing of material or informational value, we leave the two survivors to fend for themselves, and continue on our way to Georges. We see no further sign of the Hombres.
I figure that their strategy is to hang out near the hills, where they can make a quick escape into the mountains if the locals get serious about rousting them, but that is unlikely, because no local government has the resources to raise an organized force that can take them out. If they could, they would have done it long ago.
We continue along the winding gully for another day, until it widens into a copse of trees, and the stream disperses onto the wide-open grassland. Little Crow decides that he and Malsum will make camp, and wait here until I return from the town.
Little Crow made it clear outside of Entiak how he felt about entering large towns, and he is not about to leave Malsum.
Danae and I continue. It is midafternoon when we see the town walls in the distance. We come across a dirt road that leads past farmland; local farmers scrutinize us warily as we pass, but they ignore us when we do not present a threat.
To pass the time as we ride, Danae tells stories about growing up as a physician’s daughter, and some of the cases Doc handled. Life in her small town was more interesting than I would have expected. In another age she could have written a memoir, but it will be generations before that market comes back around, let alone the presses needed to support it.
“I’ll never forget one embarrassing thing that happened,” Danae says. “I was eleven, so it was maybe a year after my mother died. I was helping Papa mix up some ointments for cuts and burns, when someone banged on the door and said the blacksmith needed a doctor. We hurried up the street to the edge of town where the blacksmith shop was. When we got there, we found the man trapped under a fallen wagon, with his pants down.”
“I could see why an eleven-year-old girl would be embarrassed,” I reply.
“That’s not the half of it. His pants were down because he was on top of his neighbor’s daughter. She was pinned underneath him with her legs spread. The poor girl was only five or six years older than me at the time, and crying her head off. Not because she was hurt; she was humiliated and the blacksmith’s wife was there, yelling at both of them.”
“That must have been awkward,” I say.
“No kidding. I had heard rumors about sex from the other kids, but my mother died before she explained where babies came from. So I was both fascinated and horribly uncomfortable at the same time. Papa had to explain it to me afterward. Anyway, the wife had come into the workshop looking for her husband and didn’t see him anywhere, so out of frustration she pushed on a wagon that was being repaired on a stand. It went sideways and fell on the unlucky couple, who were hiding behind it. Papa was trying to examine the man’s broken legs, while I had to fend off the wife and her broom. She kept…”
Danae continues talking, but I stop listening and examine the horizon. I pull up on the reins to halt my horse.
“What is it?” Danae asks, as she stops her mount.
I point toward a rising column of dust to the south. “I don’t have a good feeling about that.”
We are perhaps a half-mile from the town wall. This is not a particularly arid region, so it must have taken a sizable group of some sort to raise that much dust.
In theory, it could just be a large merchant caravan, but so far nothing on this retrieval has been easy. I have no reason to think that is about to change now, so I urge us forward to the gate, where two sentries eye us as we ride up.
“I haven’t seen you before,” one of the guards challenges me—a strapping man with bright red hair. “What brings you to Georges?”
“We are coming to visit a friend,” I reply. “Angelina, she runs an apothecary on the north side. At least she did a couple years ago.”
The other guard nods. “I know the one he’s talking about. They’re okay.”
“Fine, go on through,” the first guard grunts, and moves from blocking the gate.
It has been years since I have been here, but the streets are still familiar. I wind my way through the maze of buildings until we come to the small herbal pharmacy that my friend owns and runs. We dismount, and tie our horses to a nearby hitching post.
The shop looks like Angelina still runs it. I am wondering how I am going to explain Danae to her. Even more than that, how do I explain Angie to Danae?
Before we enter the shop, I hold Danae back. If I had the choice, this is one of the last places on Earth I would be right now, but my road to Wolfengarde lies through this shop. I am not sure which I am more nervous about: meeting Angelina again, or having Danae meet her.
“I should warn you, it’s been a while since I last saw Angelina, and we didn’t exactly part on the best of terms. So just saying, I’m not certain how this is going to go.”
“What do you mean? Did you two, you know…” Danae lets the question trail off.
“Sleep together? No,” I chuckle as I answer. “I don’t get involved romantically when I’m on retrievals.” Danae skewers me with an exaggeratedly skeptical look. “Port Sadelow was an exception, and it was just that one time. Anyway, she was angry at what didn’t happen.”
That raises another doubting eyebrow. “So how bad was your parting? Was it ‘don’t leave but if you must, write me once in a while’ or more like ‘get the hell out of here and don’t ever let me see your face again’?”
“Based on the fact that I dodged a couple of thrown knives, I’d say more the latter.”
Danae gapes at me. “And you think coming back here is a good idea… why?”
“Well, she didn’t hit me when she threw them,” I say, then push the door open and enter.
A small bell jingles as we step inside a cozy shop which is essentially a miniature drugstore. Rows of shelves line one wall, with an assortment of bandages, wraps and products for all sorts of ailments. A counter runs alongside the other side of the shop, and the wall behind the counter has several more rows of shelves packed with jars and bottles of herbs, powders and other raw ingredients for mixing potions, poultices and other naturopathic remedies.
This is the post-Crash version of pharmaceuticals. At the far end of the counter, a curtain dangles across an entryway leading into the back.
As Danae closes the door behind me, a stocky but athletic woman in her mid-twenties with black hair and a swarthy complexion sweeps through the curtain. “I’m getting ready to close, so if…” The woman comes to a dead stop when she recognizes me, then scowls. “You! It takes nerve to show up after all these years, you son of a mongrel bitch.”
“I’m glad to see you too, Angie.” I watch carefully for whether she reaches under the countertop for the crossbow I know she keeps loaded, but instead she leans over the counter and rests on her elbows.
She instantly sizes me up and spares a quick glance at Danae. “How long has it been? Oh yes, five years, eight months, thirteen days, going on ten hours. Not that anyone’s counting. Who’s the broad?”
“This is Danae. She’s a friend.” Angie does not care much about explanations, so I will not even try.
“Really, a friend? I didn’t know you had any.” Angie walks around the counter with a slight limp. That is new. She circles around Danae slowly, examining her up and down like the other woman is a side of beef. I almost expect Angie to check Danae’s teeth. “Yeah, I see the attraction. You know, honey, you’re going to wake up one morning next to an empty blanket when he’s done with you. And he won’t leave you so much as a ‘thank you’ note for your trouble.”
Danae maintains unblinking eye contact with Angie, and puts her hands on her hips as she turns to keep facing the woman. “Like he said, we’re friends, nothing more. The fact is, he’s the one more likely to find an empty blanket.”
Angie narrows her eyes, and then laughs as she gives Danae a solid pat on the shoulder. I relax. We are past the hard part.
“I know it’s short notice,” I say, “but I’m on my way to Wolfengarde, and I was hoping you could put us up for the night.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Angie bathes me with a cynical look as she walks over to lock her door and flip over a ‘closed’ sign in the window. Then she turns to face me with crossed arms. “So why are you really here? I know you didn’t take the scenic route to Wolfengarde just because you miss me.”
“A couple of reasons. First, I need to enter Wolfengarde to recover something they took from me, and I thought you could give me some tips on how to get around inside.”
“It’s been years since I left that shithole. Any information I give you is as likely to get you killed as it is to help. And the other thing?”
“I was hoping Danae could stay with you for a couple of weeks while she gets settled here.”
Angie looks at Danae, laughing, while she points at me. “See! What did I say?”
I disregard Angie’s comment. “There’s something else. I keep hearing references to a person or group I’m not familiar with. Do the initials EV mean anything?”
“What?” Angie looks at me and freezes, her face turning so pale I am afraid she might faint. She shuffles backward to the counter and slides down into a sitting position on the floor. Angie stares at the ground for a few moments before she whispers, “I hoped to live the rest of my life without ever hearing that name again.”
“You know who it is?” Danae asks.
Angie closes her eyes as she sighs, then leans back and responds quietly, “EV is Erde Vater, the supreme leader of the Disciple movement.”
“Erde Vater,” I say, half laughing. “You’re kidding me.”
“Believe me, there is nothing about that son of a bitch that is a joke, and Disciples do not speak of that title lightly. Erde Vater is an old time name which means Earth Father, but only old-timers still speak the Awm language, although some of the titles have carried over. Sometimes they just call him Vater, but he is their high priest, leader and supreme judge.” Angie pauses to stare out a window, lost in some memory or thought.
“So you’ll help us?” I ask finally.
“I’ll do what I can for old time’s sake, as long as you get your ass out of here first thing in the morning. I don’t need any kind of association with an Archivist, especially one going to Wolfengarde.”
“When we came in, we left a couple of horses tied up outside. Do you know where we can stable them overnight?”
Angie sighs, and stands up wearily. “I have an, um, friend, who owes me some favors. Don’t ask what kind of favors, that’s none of your business now.”
We exit the shop and Danae and I lead our horses, while Angie guides us over a couple of blocks and down an alley, where we leave Saffron and Thorn at a stable behind a small tavern. Angie makes the arrangements while whispering with her friend, off to one side. I overhear a comment about getting him what he needs next week. Her favors apparently involve trading in special herbal substances.
When we return to her shop, we withdraw to her quarters on the second story. It is a simple but efficient apartment, with a small, studio-like living room/kitchen, and a door leading to a compact bedroom. The main room has a futon couch facing a couple of plain chairs. Angie gets a fire going in the tiny, freestanding wood-burning stove at the far end of the small room.
As we share a pot of hot stew along with some bread and cheese, I fill Angie in on the events that have taken place since I walked into the Broken Mast. Danae appears pensive when I recap her father’s death, and displays a fleeting smile when I skip over our one-night encounter and the faux wedding in Port Sadelow.
After Angie clears away the dishes, she brings out her ever-present jug of whiskey. I swear it is the same jug she had back when we met. Angie is one of the few women I almost let myself get involved with, but her self-medicating was one of the main reasons nothing more developed between us years ago.
I accept a cup, but Danae politely refuses, which surprises me after seeing her put away shots in her tavern. Maybe she does not want to lower her defenses, but I am not concerned about our safety now. I am still sipping my first cup, while Angie plows through her third.
Angie nods when I complete my tale. “I’m sorry to hear about Brannock. I only met him that one time but he was a good friend. So—now you are on your way to recover your artifact from the Disciples?”
“Never one to beat around the bush,” I respond. “I know you left quite a few years ago, but you grew up there, so if anyone knows the Disciple compound, it would be you. Just tell me anything you think might be helpful, like how to get in and out, where they might stash their treasures, ways to move around without being noticed.”
Angie takes a deep drink and looks at me with narrowed eyes. “I’m not going back there. Don’t even think that for a second.”
“It never crossed my mind to ask. Little Crow, the Native friend I told you about, is going there with me.”
“That’s one hell of a friend!” Angie exclaims. “Either brave or stupid, maybe both. Anyway, there is no secret way to get in and out of Wolfengarde. They have the entire town sealed off, and the walls are patrolled and watched like a prison. No tunnels, no secret passages, no hidden doors in the walls. But getting into Wolfengarde won’t be your problem, compared to getting into the Temple.”
Angie is so reassuring, I think sarcastically. “Let’s just say I figure out how to get past the town gate. What am I going to find inside? Since the Temple is where they would take a blasphemous piece of technology, it would help if you could draw me a map.”
“I can do that,” Angie frowns. “It’s a fool’s mission to go in there, especially for an Archivist, but if you are determined, I can show you the best places to die.”
She gets up and leaves the room. Cabinet doors open and close as she rummages downstairs. A few minutes later, she returns with several sheets of paper and a crude pencil.
Angie and I spend the next couple of hours creating and reviewing several maps that she draws out. Danae distracts herself with a couple of mechanical puzzles that Angie has lying about. It only takes a minute to disassemble them, but she alternates back and forth between reassembling one or the other.
First Angie details a high level layout of the Disciple capital, which centers on a huge temple. Then we focus on a floor plan of the Temple itself, which she had free run of as a child, since her mother was a high priestess.
She points out some relatively abandoned areas of the building, which look like a converted sports arena. And if all else fails, she shows me a secret escape route she used as a teenager when she finally fled the Disciples. We have burned through a couple of candles by the time Angie rolls the papers up and hands them to me, along with a couple of extra candles for Little Crow’s lamp.
“I don’t have much to offer, but I do have a few things you might find useful. Don’t ask how I acquired them, but they are just your kind of gadgets.”
Angie heads downstairs again, and returns a few minutes later with a small sack. The first thing she retrieves looks like a staple gun.
“I’m not doing this for old time’s sake, I’ll have you know. I just want to help you really piss off those bastards. Now this thing—if you get injured, just hold the wound closed and press the button while you run this along the seam. This’ll seal it tight as a rat’s ass.” She turns to Danae. “Feel free to use it on his mouth if he gets annoying.”
Then she pulls out a hypo spray, and touches a small dial. “This has several settings. A shot of the green, and your patient will babble his guts out. The blue will sedate a troublesome prisoner right quick, and after a shot of the yellow, you won’t even feel a limb being amputated.”
“What about the black one?” I ask.
“You could walk across a bed of rusty nails with bare feet and never catch tetanus.”
Pouring out the rest of the contents onto the table, Angie runs through a variety of antibiotics, tourniquets, and other medical supplies. She claims that she wants to help me put a hurting on the Disciples, but I can tell that as much or more of the reason is because she cares about me, though she would never admit it. This is the best medical kit I have seen in years. I store it in my pack.
Angie takes a candle and stands up. “I hope you two really are good friends, because I only have this couch that folds out to make a bed. Blankets are underneath. If you decide to get frisky with each other, just try to keep it down,” she says. After she gives us both a quick hug, she enters her bedroom and closes the door.
I pull the bottom of the futon couch out, and it opens into a full-size bed. I am so tired that by the time we toss blankets across the makeshift bed and crawl under the covers, my pillow is the only thing I have any desire to be friendly with. Danae snuggles up with her back against mine and is lightly snoring before I fall asleep.
My eyes snap open to a dawn-lit room. My left foot sticks out from under the covers, where Angie is tickling it with a feather.
“Time to get those old bones of yours up,” she says as she tosses the torture instrument aside, and heads into her small kitchen. Before I rouse my bedmate, the thought crosses my mind to rise quietly and leave, but I know Danae well enough by now to know that trying to slip away while she sleeps would only backfire one way or another.
Plus, Angie would kill me, because that is how I tried to leave her.
While we eat a breakfast of fried eggs covered with a gravy made from salted beef, I review the maps with Angie one more time to verify all the details. Before we head out to the stable, she hands me a sack with dried rations. She is every bit as tough as she seems, but she also has a heart of gold.
As soon as we step outside, Angie frowns. “It’s unusually quiet. There’s something wrong.” Backing up her point, a pair of men scurry around the corner, keeping their heads down as they dart along the other side of the street. One of them hazards a furtive glance at us as they pass.
“Quickly,” I whisper, and we hurry silently down the street a couple blocks and turn into the alley leading to the stables. When we reach the entrance, I hear someone talking inside and flash a warning signal, gesturing for the others to hold up just outside the wide open doors. Then I ease to the edge so I can listen.
Inside the building, a man with a deep-throated voice mumbles something I don’t quite catch. Then I hear Angie’s friend respond.
“No, I’m not a believer. But I’ve never had any gripe with you Disciples.”
I feel a cold knot deep in my stomach. What the hell are Disciples doing here, now?