A Grand Departure
August 17, 0004 PPE: Hollywood Park, OKC Sector West
“Bill!” the little speaker in the ceiling crackled. Lucy. “Showtime, you're on!”
Time for the president's fabulous parade. The boy looked uncertainly back at Bill one more time and went into the house.
Bill let go a long breath he didn't know he was holding. He almost let out a chuckle. But sipped his drink instead, fitting the curve of the glass into the ludicrous crescent of his grin. As soon as he wet his lips, they were dry again.
A bit slow, he was thinking. But the lad has pluck. Lucy will like him.
Funny the little fella’s name.
But deep in Bill's gut, something moved. Christ in hell. The boy couldn't be more than nine or ten. Bill remembered his scared look when he finally opened the mirrory face-mask in his purple helmet and peeked out. The brave tremble of his jaw as he turned to face the door. Wide dark eyes, a shy brown face. Ancestry obviously mixed.
But he sure as hellfire didn't want to let go of his weapon! Trained that way. Chintzy bastards at NSI. Training the boy for murder, and wouldn't even send him out here with a real live radio. Let alone a weapon.
Fortunately for Bill and his nefarious escapade. His grand departure.
The boy’s plastic pistol was still in his hand. A facsimile NSI laserpistol, with just a touch of Captain Starbolt's spacegun. With lights that would flash and a siren that would sound, no doubt, if he squeezed the trigger. He lifted it stealthily to his temple, grinning. He couldn't have written a better joke himself.
He felt the weight in the pocket of his old tweed jacket, an anchor deep in cushioned upholstery. But no. The boy might not be out of earshot yet. He dropped the spacegun into the pocket on the other side and lifted his glass to wet his lips. For a moment. Again.
The way security keeps going up, he was thinking, you’d expect more than a ten-year-old Cadet pedaling past once a week. More than the overflights going over six times a day, a mile or so up. But this particular Cadet was better than he could have expected. Better than he deserved. Better than he could have invented in his mad scientist’s laboratory dungeon of a brain, today of all days.
The last day.
At least Lucy wouldn’t be alone when she. When he. Because if he knew Lucy, all she needed in any emergency was someone to take care of, and she’d be fine. And just in case the rent-a-cops gave her any trouble: a witness. Underage, but one of their own. Trained in observation, surely, by that age. He blew his nose, trying to ventilate his clogged sinuses. But succeeded only partially on one side. Damn the allergies!
“Bill, come on!” the ceiling speaker nagged. “Aren't you even curious?”
Funny the little fella's name was Bill.
Counterbalancing the leaden weight of Lucy's pistol in his jacket, Lucy's face floated weightless in his hand, dominating the ancient photograph's light-filled frame. The greygreen eyes. The dimpling, freckled smile. The salvo of popping flashbulbs and the triumph of Lucy's dress, which had received more attention on the society page than the awkward, silent groom. Bill and his best man, Dan Gurney, Lucy's maid-of-honor, Kathianne, even the fabulously wealthy parents of the bride all seemed to have faded over the decades they had spent folded up in Bill's wallet. Even that legendary dress. But not Lucy. Not Lucy.
As if he could forget. He slid the snapshot into his breast pocket and grinned out over Lucy's square of yellow grass going brown. Over the slate-shingled and solar-rigged rooftops of his neighbors. Through the grey skeletons of trees into white-hot sky.
Lucy to thank.
The Comet was up there somewhere.
Bill's life was flashing before his eyes again.
Sometimes he felt like his whole life had been one long struggle to escape the script. Bill had designed the official Galactic Sky Patrol raygun himself, late one night under an 8 a.m. deadline with cocaine whistling through the empty spaces in his skull. Originally Starbolt’s pistol had only sprayed hallucinogenic rays— though after Production got through with it the effect was more like epilepsy. Over the years it had evolved a few more settings on its dial. One that stunned you. One that paralyzed you. One that kicked you directly into hypnotic trance.
Finally, after Bill had been relieved as head writer and promoted a few floors up the Data Central Tower, the raygun had been re-programmed to burn neat, bloodless holes. Only in alien monsters, at first. Then in humanoids. Then mutants. Then . . .
They had real laser weapons that did that nowadays. It wasn't Sci Fi any more.
His back had started to ache. His spine was standing erect, he realized. At attention before the distant triple stripe of another formation of jets. More than just the usual overflights up there today, he was noticing. Maybe NSI’s surveillance satellite had picked up his complaint. Resisting a suicidal impulse to wave, he relaxed. Sinking luxuriously into the faded cushions of an armchair so old he couldn't remember what color it had been. Sagging into the mold of a body shaped suspiciously like his. He put on his mirrored shades and the sky turned blue.
Tune in his head: the Memphis Blues Again.
So. This was it. This was as far as
he got, thirtyone years ago. Barely halfway across the continent. One ride
past the Oklahoma City bypass, to be exact. Back when El Reno was a little
one-exit redneck town thirty miles out on the prairie. Interstate 40, coast
to coast. In the days of the free ride. God it was a long time.
Of course he’d flown west plenty of times since: L.A. Sacramento. Portland. But looking down from the air just wasn’t the same. And business was business. Even the pleasure on those trips was business. As for traveling by car, Lucy had certainly done her share once she gave up trying to persuade him to join her. Which he would gladly have done, if she had agreed to one simple condition. Which of course she wouldn't. Picking up hitchhikers was something she'd been warned about all her life, and just because she'd married Bill didn't mean she would have stopped for him out on the highway.
As it happened, Bill and Lucy had moved a few miles out past the El Reno exit thirty years later when they bought the yellow house in the far western suburbs. Hollywood Park was a brand-new development then, lush and luxurious. The first in Metro OKC with rooftop solar collectors and pollution-filtered air. They lived seven miles from the absolute edge of Metro OKC, where you could stroll across a well-watered country club and see cattle grazing on open rangeland through a fifteen-foot electric fence. Bill and Lucy had outlasted almost all their original neighbors. Or outlived them, poor bastards. Where the cattle had browsed, wheat grew now between patches of encroaching sand.
When the underground aquifers began to dry up, Lucy had installed rooftop rain collectors, and planted a new type of grass that was genetically modified to grow to a uniform three inches and stop. Neither innovation had quite paid for itself before the rain finally stopped for good.
Stuck inside of Mobile . . . Bill began to whistle, meandering in and out of the tune.
He'd nursed a vague idea of stepping out of the shade of the porch and walking. Just a little further west: maybe not all the way to the fence. But at the moment his feet were asleep. And the golf course was dead now, too. One of the last to lose its water privileges. Desert already sifting through the fence. This was as far as he was going to get.
As soon as he finished his drink.
He tapped another smoke out of the pack on the table and flicked his flamecard. And immediately broke out coughing, hacking up a clot of resentful phlegm. He spat over the cast-iron rail and grinned back up at the sky. But felt a tear run down his nose. He licked it off.
But felt another one.
He shut his eyes and the vision came floating back. But already he was beginning to wonder. If he had really. What he had seen. It was fading like a morning dream.
I can tell you haven't been watching. Code Blue, boy! News is breaking—
On his way home he had carefully steered around the twenty-foot wallscreens in every substation, all tuned to Newsworthy News. But he couldn’t escape the reverberating burble and gush of the newsvixens as he crossed the broad polished floors. The pre-parade specials; teasers for Rockwell’s speech. The airshow. The fireworks. The usual high-security sabotage warnings and hijack watch. All according to schedule and script. Except for one Code Blue Alert, somewhere out in the industrial wasteland on the east side. As routine as it gets on a day when the President pre-empts every last lasercable channel for a star-spangled entertainment extravaganza, live from the Holy Land.
Maybe that was the crowd he’d seen down in the streets today: extras. Rockwell’s cast of thousands. Waiting for their welfare tokens.
Snowfall and Brimstone watched him from their comfortable nest of one another on the hot cement. Cats, he was thinking. That all-knowing look. Well, they didn't know everything. But it was no life for an animal, locked in Lucy’s luxury cellblock, never seeing the sky. Just because kitty-instinct never heard of ozone or UV rays or feline carcinoma.
He finished his drink and immediately his mouth was dry. His squeezebottle stood on the table. Last year's fad, a Christmas present from Lucy. Its rainbow-colors still changing. But no longer quite so cheerful. It squirted a solution fifty percent H2O, fifty percent Moonshine Holler, 250 proof. Unscrewing the squirtgun-cap he measured a precise mouthful into his glass. Dehydration was not going to claim him this time. Only fifty percent of him, at worst.
Like father. Like father.
Soon as he finished his smoke.
What was it his horoscope had said? Vast light. Then darkness. Enclosure. Back to the womb.
He took Lucy's pistol out of his pocket and looked it over. It was a designer gun, a blunt automatic in Lucy's colors: purple steel, pink handlegrip. Phallic. And not just a symbol. He fingered the cool synthetic grip, molded in a goosepimpled texture, soft as human skin.
Choose your weapon.
If it was a revolver, he could spin the cylinder. Inspect the merchandise. He found the catch and slid the magazine out of its slot. Loaded. The deadly pellets peacefully asleep.
Death. Everything else is just— procrastination.
The gross physical form.
He shut his eyes and the banished vision unexpectedly drifted back: the multitude encamped under colorful tarps and banners. Filling the streets, spreading across Wheeler Park and still flooding in between the downtown Towers. The people tiny as dolls, the mass of them so huge that he couldn’t even—
But no. He shook his head and took another swallow, this time squirting straight from the bottle. No. It was a daydream. A flashback. Latent paranoia. Premature senility. And anyway. Say some last desperate uprising of crazed Millennialists had occurred this morning, or sometime in the night; it would be over by parade-time, wouldn’t it? Surely by now the rent-a-cops had taken back the streets. They always did.
Something moved, deep down in his belly.
They had real laser weapons that did that now. It wasn't Sci Fi any more.
Suddenly Bill could smell himself. Sweating. Scared. He took another swallow.
If he didn’t already know the script, he could go inside and watch. Upstairs with Lucy, down in his basement hideaway, in virtually any of seventeen rooms. The multicolored marching regiments. Tanks. Missiles. Anti-satellite lasers on wheels. Formations of coptors, flights of jets. On and on, between ten-minute commercials disguised as history, for the next three hours or so. Parading NSI’s military might across all the VT screens left in the civilized world. Christ in hell, surely no one would be loopers enough to even try. It would be—
Bill grinned ironically up through his mirrored shades at the sun. The biggest problem with suicide was how damned trendy it was getting. He’d sworn off all fashions, fads and bandwagons half a century ago when disco hit. But it was too late now. Too late for Bill, anyway. Too young for the radical sixties. Too old for the Rapture. And this time around it was just plain too late.
The late William A. Benedict.
Something was distracting the kittens down Gable Avenue: they pricked up their elfin ears and stared. Something faint and faraway. Or one of those hovering somethings only cats can see.
No. It was much too late to take the streets back from the rent-a-cops. And Bill had missed his one last chance to try. Given up the right, really, little by little over the years. As he’d lost the heart for all of Lucy’s noble causes, one by one. The petitions and the picket lines and all the petty divisions that split us into a rabble of complainers. Or maybe even before that: when he’d settled down and given up his freedom and the dream of California. When he’d settled for Lucy Vandergeld and Oklahoma City, OK. The only international airport named after a comedian. The only state capitol with a working oilwell in the basement. The Cowboy Hall of Fame. Rock concerts at the zoo.
He blew his nose again. Damn the allergies!
No, not a vision. Not even really an omen. But it might as well be a sign. It was time. His thumb felt for the safety catch. He lifted Lucy’s pistol slowly and deliberately till the cool metal touched his sweaty temple.
Then suddenly Bill heard it too. At first only an insistent hum, like an insect buzzing his ear. Then a deep bass note he could feel in his feet: a subterranean rumble through the concrete porch. As if a hibernating monster was waking under Lucy's lawn. A faint clatter began to echo off the houses down the street. As if. As if—
It was beginning to sound familiar. Bill pocketed the pistol again and grunted and sighed to his feet without exactly deciding to. It couldn't be.
He stepped to the wrought-iron rail, leaning out to listen. It couldn't be.
The kittens were huddled together,
staring down the street, fur standing up along their backs. Bill felt the
follicles prickle on his bald scalp. His teletron was peeping again. Lucy's
signature ring: a bar of Mendelsohn. He reached without even glancing and
gathered his longbilled cap and the strap of his squeezebottle, leaving the
teletron warbling on the table. Took the six steps in three and actually hurdled
the kittens in his hurry, hustling down the front walk to the curb. His belly-inertia
carried him a step over into the street; instinctively he stepped back up.
Though Gable had averaged maybe two cars a day ever since the Crash—
It couldn't be!
He tugged the long bill down over his brow and cupped both hands against the glare. Out of the haze of heat down the long straightaway, still blocks off, harsh sun glinted on glass and metal. At a distance it could have been an apparition of the heatwaves. A mirage. But it drew steadily closer: tall smokestacks flanking a metallic shimmer, black smoke shimmering on the air. If it wasn't a mirage, it was a miracle.
God it was a long time.
He knew TransCorp still had a few aging eighteen-wheelers out there hauling high-security hardware, hazardous chemicals and such. But through a restricted-access community like Hollywood Park? Bill took off the mirrored shades and rubbed his jacket sleeve across his eyes, wiped the lenses on his lapel and put them back on.
Shit, fuck, piss, amen! As Daddy used to say. It's a miracle. Somebody call the Pope-in-Exile.
A delivery, perhaps. Old man Axton had fenced and mined the perimeter of his yard last summer. He might be adding a little artillery. The truck kept coming, rattling the slumber of the pastel houses. A longnose: not a cabover. Silver and blue. And suddenly Bill smelled exhaust. Diesel.
Before he even knew he had decided, he was lifting the squeezebottle's strap over his head in rapt slow motion and slinging it from one shoulder. His right arm rose effortlessly into the air, remembering. His thumb uncurled from his fist and stood up, autonomous, nonchalant. The massive grille and tinted windshield loomed: the roar broke over him like an enormous wave that shook the curb and engulfed him in an oily cloud of diesel smoke. Then the wind caught him, flapping his jacket so hard that Lucy’s pistol whacked his hipbone and he had to limp the first few halting steps as the brakelights on the trailer lit and he turned to chase his ride.
The brakes screamed and the big tires smoked against the hot street until the truck gave a final melodramatic convulsion and hissed to a stop. Bill wrapped his arms around the jounce of his belly and ran.
HANFORD CYBERTRONICS, screamed the red, white and blue billboard on the side of the trailer. A Division of Molecular Home Assembly of America.
A door swung open high on the side of the cab. Bill caught a rail of the chrome ladder and found the footholds blind. His hands and feet remembered. His shoulder even remembered to lean away from the hot exhaust pipe that ran up the side of the cab. Halfway up he had to stop and rest. But his eyes remembered to look up as soon as they cleared the door to see who had stopped to offer him a ride.
Just a kid with a ponytail. Looking down out of dubious blue eyes. One hand tense on the wheel, the other poised on the airbrakes. He gunned the motor and didn't speak. Bill scrambled in.
Leaning out for the doorhandle Bill caught a last glimpse of the house. His house. No: Lucy's house. It could have been any stranger's house— front door standing slightly ajar, two kittens staring. A boy's purple bike. The windows, empty mirrors of sky in the yellow siding. Except for one. He recognized the boy's purple helmet, pressed to the window of Lucy's front bathroom upstairs. A witness.
The kid with the ponytail was popping the big truck's airbrakes, one by one. The engine roared and the truck chugged into motion. Something heavy tugged into sluggish slow motion behind them. Bill slammed the door and felt the cab's ACC enclose him in its cold breath. Cool shadow fell over his eyes as solarsafe windowglass neutralized the sky's glare.
He didn’t notice till then the holes in the side-mirror vibrating outside his window. Six of them: not splintered glass but smooth, molten-edged holes. Scattered randomly across the reflection of Bill's face like pimples of daylight. He folded his shades and slipped them into his pocket.
Damn. He had said he would watch the boy's bike. And he still had that damn toy gun. And Christ in hell, he'd left Lucy's kittens out playing in the deadly sun! Shit, fuck, piss, goddamn. He caught hold of a chrome handgrip above the door while he regained his breath. Then turned a sweaty, shaky smile to his ride.
But the kid at the wheel was paying no attention. He was squinting through the windshield down the long straightaway of Gable Avenue. He wore crisp blue TransCorp coveralls and tattered black sneakers. The dirty blond ponytail hung down behind a matching blue longbilled cap. A smooth automatic transmission was doing most of the work a diesel-jockey would have done in Bill's day: the kid just clung to the big wheel with both hands, riding the jerks and tremors of the leatherette seat like a pneumatic bronco.
Bill stuffed his own longbilled cap into his jacket, riding his own vibrating bronco, filling his lungs with a strange, familiar exhilaration. They were rolling! Suddenly he couldn’t recall the last time he’d driven his own car down his own street. Everything looked different from this height. Then he remembered: part of the thrill of riding with truckers was looking down on everything. Peeking into passing cars. Exchanging a secret, superior greeting with other truckers, eye to eye. Back in the heyday of the long-distance deiseljockey, his own distant days on the road.
“All these fuckinsuckin' streets look the same,” the driver shouted over the deep-chested rumble of the truck. “Which way is out?”
“The north gate's closest. You—” Bill spotted a tattoo across the back of one of the brown calloused hands on the wheel; his voice quavered. “Take a left at any street. Garland’s coming up— well, Kelly's just as—”
Bill was sure it was too late. But the kid popped two of his trailerbrakes, swung the steering wheel sharply right, then smoothly left again into the longest possible curve through the intersection of Gable and Garland. Luckily they hadn't built up enough speed to jackknife the trailer. But Bill was ready, hanging onto the handgrip with both hands.
“Nice,” he shouted over the roar of acceleration, relaxing. This kid knew how to handle a load. “Garland takes you straight to 86, the main drag through Hollywood Park. John Wayne Avenue. Take a right. It goes straight to the gate.”
“Is that the way out of town?”
“Used to be. The old El Reno exit. The late Interstate.”
“But is that the end of the houses? Where the countryside opens up?””“You could call it that. The wide open spaces. In five years they'll be calling it the Great Oklahoma Desert.”
The driver glanced across, wary and brown, a blaze of teeth and bloodhot blue eyes. “I haven’t seen any countryside in a while, that’s all,” he shouted. “Been lookin’ forward to it.“
“Bad to worse out there, they say, with the drought,” Bill shouted back. A feeling he had long forgotten was stealing over him. A faint tingle, as if the blood had started moving in his veins again. A rush of cheerfulness, even merriment. A rushing fountain of words. Though he could think of nothing particularly cheerful to say.
“The Oklahoma Dustbowl, they called it last time around. Back in the Great Depression, my grandparents’ time. Those who do not pass history class are condemned to repeat it! But I’ll bet they don’t even teach history to kids any more. What would they call this— the Even Greater Depression?”
“I never heard of any dustbowl," said the kid. "Or any great depression. But I dropped out in eleventh grade.”
Bill swallowed, suddenly dry. The kid seemed tense. Preoccupied. Or just untalkative after days alone on the road. Bill was remembering little by little how it was. He gave the kid his jolly-fat-man grin.
“Ha! Mrs. Martin, my U.S. history teacher back in Wander County, told us the Dustbowl occurred from natural causes. I think she really believed it.” From way back when, an overstuffed locker bursting open deep in his juvenile brain, it was all coming back. “Come to think of it, she had the same theory about the Depression. But my Daddy was a Korean War vet and kind of a history nut, when he was sober, and he told me how it was. How the farmers broke the sod and killed the topsoil inside of a couple generations. While the stock speculators crashed the whole economy in even less. Funny thing was, they taught the same nutty natural causes theory when I got to college.”
“College,” the kid said. “Hey wow.”
“Well, nothing Ivy League. Just a little hick school back in Tennessee. Darlington College, class of ‘78."
The kid was grinning back now: a skinny-cynical-delinquent sort of grin. “My Pa— father had an even simpler explanation. He used to say all these disasters and epidemics, the Quake and the Crash and the drought and all, was only God’s natural judgement on us sinners for our sins. And just a little taste of what was coming.”
“He got the last part right. Sheeeeee! This heat! Sometimes I swear it’s hell-fire itself." Bill was resisting the thought of a cool liquid squirt from his bottle. His pitifully limited reserve. "But no. Just history, repeating itself. You know the Sahara Desert used to be farmland too? Human vice, it turns out, is also its own reward. No assistance needed from the Seat of Judgement, thanks anyhow!”
The kid's grin faded and Bill caught a wild, scared look. “I used to think so too. Today I’m not so . . .” He trailed off, cocking his ponytail to listen.
Above the diesel roar of the truck another noise was rapidly rising: the thudding staccato of a coptor. Out of the glare above the houses on Bill's side it swooped, banking. Close enough to have a clear shot at them with a wide assortment of weaponry. Crossing half a block ahead in an overpowering apocalypse of sound.
A pink one: Newsworthy camcrew. Way too late he remembered Lucy's gun. Or would it shoot that far?
The kid squinted up at two intersecting streaks of jet exhaust high in the hot cloudless sky, waiting for the racket to subside. Then he glanced across the cab again, his eyes flaring like twin blue gas-flames.
“Tell me. Are they really rationing food in this neighborhood like it said on Newsworthy?”
Bill stared back. “They said that? On the news?”
“Newsworthy Nightly News at Nine, last Monday night. You get the same news out here that we do, right?”
Bill swallowed. He never watched the news.
"Ask them, if you want to know." The kid jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the distant thudding. He yanked on a cord that hung from the ceiling, and a deep baritone foghorn blew.
Bill looked away and diplomatically skipped subjects.
“Say. Who taught you how to drive an antique rig like this? You don’t look near old enough.”
“Pa did— I mean my father— the Reverend Josiah Dodge. He drove one as long as I remember, every day except Sunday. He taught me to steer when I was twelve or so, sitting in his lap. Couldn’t reach the pedals till I was fifteen.” The kid caught the grey roofs, the brown lawns, the dead trees and the whitehot sky in a sweep of his arm; Bill caught a closer look at the machine-readable stripe across his hand. “His CB handle was Circuit Rider, but behind his back the other drivers called him the Horseman of the Apocalypse.”
Bill gave an involuntary jerk, stabbed again with the memory of innocent kittens basking in carcinogenic rays. He felt for his tube of Melodram and shook one out, chasing it with a good long squirt. Almost immediately the sting of remorse began to subside.
"So you come from a good Christian home, then?" he ventured.
"He was a self-righteous, arrogant bigot, and he hardly ever came home. After a while I got old enough to run away from home, so I went with him— every summer at least, right up until he disappeared in the Rapture. If I hadn't dropped out of school that year, I might have— say!” The kid cocked an inquisitive eyebrow across the cab. “You going someplace, mister, or just an angel delivering directions?”
If there are angels. Bill hooked a thumb over his shoulder and grinned. “West! Far as you're going.”
“Well." The kid gave that cynical grin. "You might just want to rethink. In fact you might just want to jump this particular ship before we get anywhere close to the gate. They’ve let me crash gate after gate today, see, and no one seems to be chasing me but Newsworthy. But I ain't no idiot. I got no idea how far they’re planning to let me run— but you said yourself this is the last gate before open country. So this just might be it. But I’ve come this far and I’m going through.”
Bill glanced instinctively around as if he could see through the back of the cab and the trailer's steel bulkhead to inspect its cargo. “Judas. You aren’t one of those water rustlers?”
“I wish,” the kid said, looking straight ahead. "I could use something wet about now." The grin twisted into a grimace. “Nope, it's warheads. At least according to Wentworth. It ain't what the radio said.”
All of a sudden Bill couldn’t breathe. “N— n— n—”
“I'm not sure which kind. I only sweep the floor at the plant, okay? Not that it'll make much difference to you or me, if they blow.”
Bill's grin stiffened to a mask, then sagged and faded in turn. “Who’s Wentworth?”
“But I'm finally beginning to
believe it. That would explain why they've let me wander lost through all
these gated subdivisions, knocking down gate after gate, and left me alone.
Aside from that obnoxious pink coptor. We don't want any messy explosions
in your neighborhood, after all now, do we?"
Bill stared. His mouth opened, but his mind was blank. The kid glanced across only long enough for a snort of cynical laughter.
"You must have not been around a VT lately, or even a radio. Don’t you know I got my own personal little soap-saga going today, every hour on the hour?”
Bill swallowed a lump of reluctant understanding. “You— you mean you’re—”
“Code Blue Alert, they keep callin' me. But they keep thinking up new things to call me, too, every hour on the hour. Every damngod station on that radio. I got to feeling so lonesome out here I turned the fuckinsuckin’ thing off.”
Bill lifted and turned his wrist with the old automatic gesture. But he’d left his watch behind today. On his desk, ninety floors up in the Newsworthy suite.
The last day.
“The dashboard clock is busted.” The kid hunched over the steering wheel, peering up through the polarized windshield to scan the sky. His beat-up sneaker shoved the throttle closer to the floor. “But I expect that nosy Newsworthy coptor back any time now. Because it only makes sense— if this really is the last gate, if it’s really open country out there— I got no more protection. So I just hope to Judas it's true. What Wentworth said.”
“Of course Wentworth is the last man on Earth I would trust, if I had a choice.” The big engine dropped into yet another gear and they were roaring down Garland Street so fast that Bill's eyes avoided glancing over at the speedometer altogether. He looked around for a safety-belt behind his shoulder. Then down by his hip.
“What Wentworth said about what?” He found an old-fashioned lap belt and tugged it surreptitiously out of its springloaded slot.
“The bastard that got me into this,” the kid shouted back, louder than he needed to. “Like I said, I been listening off and on and Newsworthy ain't said a damn thing about even so much as a drunk'n disorderly against Bull Wentworth or anybody else but me! But you seen the spyplanes going over all day, right? The troop-carriers way high up? So maybe Wentworth wasn’t lying. Maybe the goons are a little short-handed today— and not because of any pre-recorded parade.”
The surreptitious hand stopped dead. Bill shut his eyes and the vision came floating back. The long-prophesied. The endlessly-invoked. “You mean, you’re part of the— some kind of organized—" He couldn't say it.
“I haven't decided yet.” The hijacker squinted ahead. “Chances are pretty damngod good I won't have to.” He gave a chuckle that guttered into a sob. “Chances are pretty good that I won't make it through the suckinfuckin’ gate. Unless.” He glanced across the cab with narrowed eyes. “Mister, I don’t know you from Jack, or where you think you’re traveling to or for that matter where I’m going myself. Except that you're an overweight white man in a suit, and in my experience there ain’t been too many of those I could trust.”
Bill gave his heartiest jolly-fat-man grin. “Never trust anyone over thirty thousand a year, eh?” But felt stealthily through his jacket for the shape of Lucy's gun.
“Hey, relax! I was too young for Woodstock, but my hair used to be as long as yours. I thumbed around some back in the seventies. That never goes away.”
“Right. I heard that line before, Jack. I’d have to see a picture ID.” He cocked one eyebrow. “As a matter of fact that’s not a bad idea. What kind of ID are you carrying?”
“I’m terribly sorry—” Bill tried, but it bubbled up out of him anyway like a belch or a sneeze. “I seem to have left all my identification in my other suit . . ." The set-up. Then the punch. "And I feel ten pounds lighter already!” For as long as he could remember, Bill never could resist a joke. “No, seriously in fact I sent my— see, this junior patrolman was—”
The kid cut him off. “You don’t feel like a goon. But even if you are, I feel a whole lot safer with you aboard. Hostages are hard to come by out here; you’re the first live person I’ve seen all day without a uniform on. So I’m going to take a chance on you.”
A hostage. Bill glanced out the window and caught his own stunned face looking back at him from the side-mirror, pimpled with laser-holes. Six of them. For an instant he fought off the mad certainty that their random pattern and number held a meaning; his fate. Then he caught a glimpse of his fisheyed reflection, leering from the bubble-mirror inset below like a window to his lunatic soul. Bill grinned. Slowly. But completely.
And there’s a surprise, Lucy had crackled over the intercom. Something that’s not in the script.
Code Blue Alert.
As of 10:15 this morning, Bill was officially retired. But it had only been three years since he'd been tapped by the Bawd to help script the pilot episode of Code Blue— at the time the ultimate in real-crime VT, aired at random times to simulate a real news alert. In those first two seasons, he had nominally supervised the scripting of eleven drive-by bombings. Four assassination attempts. Nine sabotage attempts. And five hijackings, two involving eighteen-wheelers.
He searched the vast glare of the sky. The trademark pink coptors were keeping their distance, so far. But with the new lenses they could get all but the closest of their close-ups that way. Still, this was a ride that promised certain death. Suicide deluxe. With a desperate band of revolutionaries thrown in. He couldn’t have scripted it better himself.
He hooked his thumb over his shoulder again and grinned. “The wide west. Far as you’re going.”
“Long as you’re not one of these damngod daredevil newshounds wired for 3D,” the hijacker shouted back, his eyes blue flames again. “I’d like to tell one of them what I thought of Newsworthy’s impersonation of my Mom a while ago. Barehanded, no holds barred.”
“Whoa!” Bill spotted it just in time. “Better start to ease off, see the stop sign bent way over? Wayne Avenue. Looks like somebody’s autopilot crashed.”
“Hold on.” The kid spun the big wheel all the way to the left, popped his airbrakes and began to slow for the wide right turn. This time he didn't have quite enough warning and the rear of the trailer took out the faded pink STOP sign altogether, to judge by the sound it made. But he was already mashing the airbrakes in again, shoving the throttle back to the floor.
No one was coming. Not that anyone usually was. But if they ran into any traffic at all in the middle of the afternoon, it would be on Wayne Avenue.
The hijacker looked across at Bill a little longer than he should have with that accelerator floored. “And don’t try to pull anything, either,” he shouted over the whine of the gears. “Pa used to say in nine out of ten situations a driver’s got the deadliest weapon right in his hands. In this case, three thousand pounds of live explosives, riding right behind you.”
“Understood, Admiral!” Bill snapped back. In the educated cockney he had created for Starbolt’s old buddy in the Mars campaign, now second-in-command of the entire Sky Patrol, Rear Admiral Pip Stevens. He threw in a stiff Sky Patrol salute. “Pip, pip!”
“Ha,” the kid grunted, staring straight ahead, and grinned that cynical grin. “Just pretend it’s that episode about the stowaway alien goddess. Where Pip gets marooned with her at the end.” He yanked the cord and the foghorn blew.
Wayne Avenue was one of the few surface streets that Sector 9 kept in reasonably good repair. The kid seemed bent on squealing all eighteen tires at once against the hot smooth blacktop. The transmission whined, spiraling up through the gears. Bill's hand stealthily drew the tongue of the seatbelt across his bellybulge; it almost reached the socket at his other hip. He found the mechanism that adjusted it but the webbing was stiff, the roller a little rusty and at the corner of his eye he saw the speedometer needle dancing, jiggling with everything else in the whole dust-and-leatherette cab except the two pneumatic seats—
Code Blue Alert. What about our normal terrorist procedure, then?
The lines could have been chiseled in ink, up in Programming, flickering from the Bawd’s final printout to the electronic cuecards down in Production. Maybe we should pick a couple of these ongoing, ah, incidents and work them into the Code Blue schedule?
From the first, Code Blue had been a low-budget smash. Stock footage from the Newsworthy morgue, computer re-enhanced down in Production, a few actors and some extras. By midway through season two, the Bawd was flawlessly scripting her own hijackings, assassinations and sabotage attempts. A few Code Blue updates will simply add spice to all the Presidential pomp and ceremony. A little suspense!
The only question now was whether the budget stretched to live explosives this season. Though it didn't matter. Even if it was a trailerload of black-market bananas, Newsworthy knew how to milk it for all it was worth. From the start, the Bawd had explained, the writers should look at each episode as an extended commercial for Newsworthy’s biggest sponsor: National Security Incorporated. If we may, I mean, pre-empt some slower moments in Bill's superb script . . . Except—
Bill grinned. Except this kid was the real thing. A real two-bit desperado caught in the Bawd's automated script, on the run for his worthless life. Without a chance in hell. No way to be sure he was going to follow anybody's script.
Against his better judgement, he glanced down at the dashboard. The speedometer was jiggling closer and closer to infinity. His fingers were tugging at the seatbelt, he noticed; a little rusty latch refused to open. He glanced up and saw the line of traffic lights down Wayne turn yellow, every major street that once fed commuter-traffic onto John Wayne Avenue, Oklahoma State Highway 86, feeding I-40 and downtown OKC—
They might not even make it to the
gate, if some blind fool megarich kid came cruising through on autopilot with
the headphones on. But no such luck. Everyone was home watching the parade.
We need to keep people indoors, remember, for their own safety, till the ATE
has the situation under control . . .
Down the hot empty avenue the line of yellow lights turned red. The kid sounded the horn, long and defiant, and flattened the pedal against the floor. Bill tugged at his seatbelt, perspiring suddenly even in the cool blast of the ACC. His fingers slipped on the metal tongue.
The foghorn brayed at every intersection. A voice in his head was counting them off: Taylor Street. Gardner. Bacall.
At exactly the moment when he couldn't stand to wait another he glanced up and there it was in the distance, flashing its red and blue eyes. The gate. On their left the ruined bypass curved in to parallel Wayne Avenue.
The seatbelt strap slipped loose. It moved! He worked it back and forth and the ancient webbing regained a little of its play.
The gate: Hollywood Park’s drawbridge and moat. Black bulletproof glass and bright steel. Squeezing the broad lanes of Wayne Avenue down to the narrow slot of pavement at a drivethrough window, one going either way. Steel-girdered guardtower with a satellite dish, dwarfing the guardhouse and the fifteen-foot glitter of fence. But—
Deep in Bill’s belly, something moved. Five jet-black NSI coptors sat parked on the dead grass beside the gate. And one pink one. He caught a glimpse of the swivelling lens, tracking him from the open hatch.
A line of Guards in black uniforms was filing across the pavement in front of the gate, armed with short stumpy riot-rifles, faceless behind their mirrory face-masks. ATE: Anti-Terrorist Elite. An officer off to one side, talking into some kind of handheld device. And the gate itself, shiny reinforced steel on hydraulic runners. Any second now, a volley of gunfire.
The kid was grimacing, gripping the wheel so hard his knuckles went pale, both sneakers rigid against the floor. He gave one last bellow of his horn and flicked Bill a burning blue glance. Then the cynical grin. Bill bent back to his seatbelt, loosening the strap in the mechanism, sliding the mechanism along, loosening—
It clicked! The seatbelt locked into place and Bill looked up in time to see Guards leaping out of the way, slapstick in slow motion, a concrete overhang coming right at him. He was still measuring the clearance with a stunned eye as the kid swung the truck's long nose across the line and barreled into the narrow slot on the wrong side of the guardhouse without lifting a single toe from the accelerator—
The thoughts flashed with numb clarity like his last thoughts on Earth. It would clear the top of his head; probably the cab. But were the residential sector gates made to clear a semi-trailer? A semi-trailer full of—
The shadow of the overhang clipped the thought like an old-fashioned reel of tape in Bill's brain. The sun glared again and with a grating cry the gate bounced into the air and tumbled over their heads. The roof of the trailer boomed a hollow reply and the world went black. He was floating up. Higher and higher. That was all.
"Billy?" a voice was calling in the blackness. "Billl-yyyyy!"
* * *
December 25, 1966 AD: Wander County, Tennessee
Missie was hollering from the kitchen door, waving a brown paper sack. She had fixed him some sandwiches. Bill had nearly reached the treeline at the top of the pasture behind the house. He grinned and waved and turned into the woods.
Fixing the sandwiches was Missie's compromise. It was Christmas Day, Missie said, and she had fixed a roast and Bill ought to have some of it. Even if he wasn't sitting at the table with her and Daddy watching the pageant like Christian folks. But Bill had his first gun, and he couldn't wait to get up to the woods.
Daddy had unwrapped the ashtray Bill made for him in art class. He had poured his first whisky of the day and looked almost happy. Bill could tell by the way he teased Missie that he was pleased about Bill's new gun and hunting outfit. Because he was the one who had taught Bill to track and shoot, though he himself hardly ever set foot in the woods any more. And finally, finally—
"Why not?" Daddy had said. "Let him get out and earn his keep. For once. Bring some meat home for the table, son. Or don't—"
Bill’s Daddy wasn't drunk enough to say it yet. But Bill knew. He'd run straight to his room with his packages, Missie's careful wrapping-paper hanging in shreds. The used coverall Missie had shortened fit perfectly. He wore his old camouflage cap, but the new gun felt at home right away in his hands. His boots— last Christmas's surprise, a little tight now— had clumped across carpet and linoleum and down the kitchen steps. Then they started to crunch in the snow. Moon came loping along behind him.
He wasn't hungry yet. And when he got hungry, he was going to shoot himself something.
He had seen plenty of deer on Grandaddy’s mountain. A bounding tuft of white and those long, effortless legs disappearing between the trees. In all the times he had climbed this ridge— so many times that he could find the deer-trails by moonlight— he had never seen a deer before it saw him. And out hunting with Daddy, carrying Jeremy's old .22, he'd never seen anything bigger than a coon. And never hit anything but a rude old crow. Even then, he'd searched all around the tree it had fallen from, and never found a single black feather.
But today he was going to get his deer. With his own gun. The way to do it was to sit still, Daddy said. That was the hardest assignment they ever gave in school. But he'd been practicing.
Something scurried up a tree behind him and he whirled, aiming from the hip, ready for Apaches or Krauts or Commies, like his Daddy fought in Korea—
Then he remembered Daddy's lecture this morning when he'd ripped open his packages, and Daddy's promise. "Now remember, Billy, this may be a toy for grownups but it ain't to play with. It'll blow your stupid head off. If I ever catch you joking or pretending or horsing around, by god it'll be my gun then, locked up with the rest of 'em. You got that?"
He'd left out the licking. But Bill knew. Daddy had seen his share of people shot in Korea. He didn't have much patience left after he came home. At least Bill's mother had explained it that way once when Jeremy lay whimpering after one of Daddy's lickings.
By and by the snow didn't crunch under Bill's boots any more. His new hunting suit was too warm and he unzipped it a little. He'd hunted all over this side of the ridge without spotting anything to shoot. In time to shoot it, anyway: squirrels and bluejays seemed to disappear at the sight of him, instead of ignoring him as usual. Moon hadn't struck a single scent. Worthless hound, his Daddy said.
He was resting on the ridgecrest, looking down through the trees at the new Interstate. He was getting a little hungry.
Interstate 40, coast to coast: they had blasted deep into the shoulder of Grandaddy's mountain to build it. One way it went to Knoxville: the other way, over the Blue Ridge into North Carolina. Bill's Daddy owed so much that he couldn’t turn the money down. But it sure ruined the hunting on this mountain. Daddy said so himself near every night, once he'd been drinking sufficient. Made it hard to get down to the swimming hole, too, and the upstream places Daddy liked to fish.
Bill had finally wiggled out of going fishing last summer because he always got stuck cutting up worms and scraping the guts out of fish. But he missed the swimming hole. You had to drive there now. And if you drove you might as well drive to the river bridge, where older kids washed their cars on the boat-ramp. Or all the way to Lake Pulaski where the cars were jammed between the trees.
He missed his Gramma sometimes. To visit her now he had to walk a mile down the Interstate to the viaduct and back on the other side. Or else skip giddily across the painted lanes, if he wanted to risk it. And risk a licking.
But the Interstate money had bought Missie's dishwasher and Daddy's pickup, Bill's new rifle, so many fine new things. All they had lost was the back of the ridge. Daddy still grumbled about his peace and quiet. But his ball games and westerns on the new TV made more noise than the Interstate did.
Bill was getting hungrier. But maybe he would just scout the other side of the ridge before he went back. Down to the Interstate, along the new fence to the old stone wall that marked the edge of his Daddy's place and back that way to the house.
Maybe Daddy meant his inside peace and quiet. He drank more beers now. And didn't talk back so much to the TV. Bill reached the corner where rusty old barbed wire met a brand new steel-mesh fence. He lowered his new rifle carefully over the wire, leaned it on the corner post and climbed.
Across a narrow band of snow, a cliff-face of blasted rock fell to a heap of boulders along the shoulder of the highway. He left Moon whining at the fence, took his rifle and crawled on the waterproof elbows of his new coveralls to the edge. He never could resist the view of crisp black asphalt, outlined in white and gold, winding up toward Montfort Pass. Something in the rhyming curves of the Pigeon River and the Interstate caught at his breath: like a daydream he woke from without the slightest idea where he'd been or how long he'd been gone.
Then he saw something he had never seen. Directly below him, where the faded blacktop crested the shoulder of the hill, a man stood beside the Interstate.
He walked back and forth in a green army overcoat with his hands in its pockets, whistling. He had long shaggy hair and no hat. Beside him a faded green duffel bag leaned on a reflector-post. Every few steps he pulled his hands out of his pockets and clapped them together and Bill could see that he had no gloves, either. But he kept whistling. Bill couldn't quite catch the melody. But every note made a separate little cloud of steam.
This was one of the things Daddy had muttered about, then, while he was wrestling with the State DOT's offer and all the federal money. Hollered about, toward the end of the evening's twelve-pack. How the Interstate would bring new people: people they didn't want or need in Wander County.
"Longhairs," Daddy had explained, and drained a can of beer. "Mexicans." He popped the next can. "Niggers’ll be next. Problem with them is, they stay. And now that they gettin’ organized you know what that means." Then he had taken aim and hurled the empty beer can into Walter Cronkite’s face.
Bill was starting to grin. He unslung his new gun. For once the cavalry was up on the rim of the canyon, getting the drop on the Indians. What would his Daddy say if he came home dragging a radical war protester by all that hair? Or maybe just the scalp. Or just the thumb. A little souvenir.
Something moved inside him. He felt a little sick.
Well. Maybe he could scare the guy a little. He lifted the rifle and checked it, the way his Daddy had showed him: loaded and ready. He grinned, already making up the story he could tell. Not to Daddy. But to Chester and Tweet. The story would get passed around school. Kids wouldn't think he was such a runt. The safety catch was still a little stiff, but it clicked.
He raised the riflebarrel, squinting along the cold glint of metal till the front sight crossed the man's face. Then he swung it back, a little lower so this time it crossed the man's chest. Then he shivered and his breath caught and his finger seemed to freeze, cramped around the cold metal of the trigger. He closed his eyes.
Suddenly a loud harsh cry startled him, so close that he almost dropped his gun. He opened his eyes. A black bird was gliding past on broad motionless wings, gleaming in the sunlight, close enough to see its glittering black eye as he lay freezing on the snowy ledge.
A crow. And somehow he was sure it was the same damn crow.
He was soaking wet, he discovered: from sweating all the way up the ridge in his new coverall. And from lying in the snow. And from something else. He lifted the gun again halfheartedly, touched his cheek to the cold stock and squinted. But suddenly now, off in the distance, he heard a car. You could hear one coming for miles out here in the maze of mountain hollows. Then you would hear it again. But you could never tell how far off. He waited.
Now the man by the highway heard it too. The wind blew his shaggy hair back as he turned in a slow circle, listening, and Bill saw the scrap of cardboard under his arm. MEMPHIS, it said in crooked black letters.
They both waited.
Memphis was beyond Knoxville, past Chattanooga and Nashville, clear at the other end of the state. Missie had told him all he could think of to ask about those places. But Memphis was on the Mississippi River. And beyond the Mississippi stretched the wide west. Bill was going there someday.
Bill’s only A in school last year was the one Mrs. Richardson gave him in Geography. That’s because someday he was going to all those different-colored countries on Mrs. Richardson’s globe. All the way around, if he could.
Bill saw it first: the car was struggling up the long hill. But the longhaired man heard it coming and turned to face downhill. He cradled his sign against his chest and leaned toward the blacktop, curving a thumb back lazily at his hip, whistling hopeful little shapes in steam.
Bill crossed his fingers on both hands. "Come on!" he whispered.
It was a little car, one of the tin Jap boxes his Daddy complained about. It reached the top of the hill, passed the longhair and pulled onto the shoulder, as if glad of the rest.
The longhair grabbed his duffel bag and ran, hoisting it to one shoulder as if it was pumped full of air. A man got out of the car and opened the trunk. The little car rocked as the longhair pitched his duffel bag in. The two men shook hands and spoke in little clouds of steam: Bill could hear their voices, almost their names. The trunk slammed, then the two doors, and the little car started down the mountain. Bill stood up and cheered.
He nearly fell over the cliff.
"William Arnold Benedict, what the heck are you doing out there?"
He closed his eyes and breathed again. Missie. Calling from the fence. Waving that stupid sack of sandwiches, he knew without looking around.
"What the hell you following me for? You could've made me fall, hollering like that!"
Her face looked just as horrified as if she had. "Well, I knew you'd be gettin' hungry, so I thought I'd take a walk and . . ."
"You— you numskull!" Bill hollered back. "I been hunting out here! You could've got yourself shot, walking around these woods!" He began to shiver all over as he took a shaky step back from the edge.
Daddy was always warning her about her nature walks: so it was true. But Bill had never. To any grownup. Even Missie. He was still shaking as he stood up. His gun felt suddenly strange in his hands. Strange and stiff and new.
Moon welcomed him as he climbed down on the safe side of the fence, still shivering. He snatched the brown paper sack out of Missie's hand. But followed her back to the house without opening it, holding his gun alert for noises.
Moon loped along, her worried brown eyes following every movement of the paper sack. “Traitor!” he hissed at her. But she only licked his hand.
Someday he was going to see Memphis. The Mississippi River. The wide west, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. And then keep going. But he wasn't going begging. He'd wait until he had a brand-new Mustang to drive like his brother Jeremy.
He wasn't going to bring any girls along, that's one thing he knew for sure.
* * *