Iowa's so rotten with bandits, I didn’t have enough eyes to watch the horizon and my backside and the hills right and left.
They often run in packs, especially along old route 80, and tend to carry lots of stolen weapons. I had a car, money, guns, food, fuel cells and a body. Female and not so old. Prime prey, or at least I looked that way.
Some of them just want money and don’t care about the rest, a lot of them can be outsmarted; but I’d come too close to death a time or two. The last time I’d been careless enough to get waylaid I’d been lucky. The band of godders who stole my float-car and left me hiking over a mountain had been the kind who not only preached chastity for others, but practiced it as well.
In any case, even the milder sort could do enough damage to put a hole in my timeline, and there was a big job waiting out in Sierra and a possible short-term one on my way through Rocky. I kept my eyes open and my throttle ready to roar.
The gig in Northland had lasted just a few days. I was happy to be leaving, heading west toward home. Iowa in particular always felt more than normally foreign to me. So alien it made my skin itch, like the nasty August heat that stewed the green landscape even now, an hour after dawn, in heavy humidity. Strange accents, unpredictable people, unstable politics. The kind of craziness that meant well-paying work I couldn’t turn down, but work that was always chancy. And sometimes left a long bad taste. Like this last job. Yet another new chief of the Northeast Iowa Quadrant, and he wanted me to spy on his sheriff. Should have been short and simple, but I’d ended up having to kill the sheriff before he got me. It turned out he was also the chief’s brother, and the chief was not happy.
Messy and ugly. I don’t like killing and I don’t like blood. A handicap for a mercenary, but there it was. I’d be having nightmares for a while, dreams where the blood of that crooked sheriff was oozing from the eyes and ears and mouths of my parents. Once again, I’d be watching them die, night after night.
And of course, I hadn’t gotten paid. So I was in a hurry to get to the next job and feeling itchier than ever about August in Iowa.
I cut south, to 92, figuring I’d follow it as far as it went, however far that was this month, and see how much trouble I could avoid. I was making reasonably good if bumpy time on that patchy mess of rubble when, just past an abandoned quarry, I saw a bowed figure, dressed completely in dirty green rags, limping along the side of the road.
A hugger. Like every other loony-group, huggers ran the gamut from peaceful dogmatic to moon-howling crazy. Unlike some, they tended not to be vicious, not so much these days anyway.
I passed him and looked back at him in the rearview. I didn't have to be on anyone’s side to feel sorry for the bent old guy stumping along the road, slow, limping, way out there in the middle of nothing, his life tied up in a sack slung over his shoulder, his green rags flapping around him in the breeze of a coming thunderstorm.
I pulled over, tapped the horn, and waited. I avoid causies, generally, but I liked the way the huggers wanted things to stay broken up. If you lived in a too-big nation, 3,000 miles away from a dying forest, they said, that forest just wasn’t personal enough to matter. Smaller countries, they said, didn’t make as much of a mess.
All of that was true, far as I was concerned. There had been huggers before, during, and after the Poison. The most extreme huggers had been the first ones to hang toxies. But a few years into it, there were bodies hanging upside down from trees everywhere—toxies, terrorists, and innocent people that someone didn’t like.
Gran said the whole world smelled like death. That time’s past. It didn’t stink any more. There were still crazy people, but there weren’t very many of them because there weren’t very many people. There were some who called themselves huggers, and others who called themselves godders, and still others who said they were joiners and wanted the countries to grow again.
I’m not anything. Not a hugger, not a godder, and certainly not a joiner. Joiner least of all. My work depends on things staying the way they are.
Balkanized, Gran called it. Everything was easier to get to the top of, everybody had something close by to fight about, and local money paid to wade into the fracas could be traded elsewhere without too much trouble. And without caring too much about who won and who lost.
The hugger was nearing my car. I yelled at him: "Hey! Where you going?"
He caught up and smiled at me, his eyes crinkling to slits in his dirt-smudged no-color bearded face. Most of his teeth were gone.
"Going? Well, let's talk about it. About going." He leaned in the driver's side window, breathing stale garlic in my face, and began to shout a poem that sounded vaguely familiar, about taking the road less traveled by. Then he dumped some of the contents of his sack into my lap. Food, rags, money … something that smelled bad. Okay. He was one of the crazy ones, spotty as a fever-dance. I opened the door and was busy tossing the mess onto the ground, so I didn't see the cars pull out of the quarry. Didn't know they were coming until I heard the nearby soft whir of their motors. Hadn't recovered from the hugger’s assault on my ears, my nose, and my lap enough to pull away before they had me surrounded. Three cars. Four men, not counting the hugger.
A large blubbery hulk with a black beard, waving an ancient handgun, jumped out of the sand-colored car in front of me and swaggered up to the old hugger, who stepped aside, grinning.
"Shut it off, you.” My mind was skittering all over the place and the adrenaline was nearly bubbling but I jabbed a thumb at the touch-key and the motor sighed to a stop. “That’s a good girl. Now, we'll take your packs and your cell. And your money, of course."
"Of course." I began to reach for the gun I'd stuck under the seat. He yanked open the car door, grabbing my arm. Too hard. "No, no, no, no reaching. Gimme your cash." He pointed at the wallet lying on the seat beside me.
I handed it over. This one held about a fifth of my money. I had three more stashed in the car, each with ID and health certificate. He took the bills out, looked at my ID, muttered, "Huh. Rica Marin. Citizen of Redwood. Big Deal.”
“That’s Marin,” I said. “Accent on the second syllable.” “Who gives a shit.” He slid the certificate out, stuck it in his pocket, and handed the wallet back, sneering. “Thought everyone out there owned a floater, so I hear.”
“Not everyone,” I said bitterly. Not anymore. I was hoping I’d earn enough on the next job or two to replace the one the godders had jacked.
“Too bad. I could use one.” The blackbeard reached in, felt around beside the seat, and pulled out the gun I’d been trying to get hold of. He grinned. Just an ordinary twenty-shot automatic, hardly state-of-the-art but a lot newer than the chunk of iron he was waving around. He jammed it into his pocket. That was okay. I had a few extra guns, too. He pointed at the button that unlocked the fuel cell. No good arguing; I punched it and slid it out of its slot under the dash. He grabbed it out of my hand and dropped it on the ground. I hit the switch that opened the back of the car. A couple of his scraggly-looking specimens began unloading the spare cell and hydropacks. The third, a skinny little man with greasy yellow hair, pulled two cans out of his car and began siphoning off my small supply of ethanol, insurance for the wide spaces where hydropacks could be hard to find, from the tank bolted to the floor. They’d probably drink half of it, I guessed, and convert some for power. But then I realized no one was bothering to unhook my alkie converter. So maybe they’d drink all of it. Too bad I hadn’t filled up on wood alcohol instead. It would be a service to humanity to forget to tell them. And the thought of Blackbeard going blind or worse would have made me feel marginally better about my sore arm and aching ego.
Yellow-hair said something about the car, and Blackbeard shook his head. “Piece a shit. Not worth recutting the key.” My little green ’60 Electra was not a piece of shit. It could outrun the beer cans they were riding in. But I kept it looking bad so dummies like these guys wouldn’t want it. Dented, paint-scraped, un-upholstered.
“What about the tires?”
“They’re permies. We’ll never get ‘em off.” They could if they really wanted to, but they weren’t workers.
So far, so good. They weren’t going to try to reprogram the key and take Electra and they were too lazy to steal the permies. Up ‘til now, no one had grabbed my boobs or stuck a knife in my ear lobe. No one was giggling insanely or drooling or groping himself or using me for target practice. I still had a car full of hidden weapons and cash. But spares and packs are harder to hide than wallets and guns, and they’d get them all. Could I appeal to Blackbeard’s compassion?
"Come on,” I said, watching the last of the packs hit the ground, “I'll be stuck out here on the road to nowhere.” Could I reach the laser pistol stashed behind the passenger seat before he noticed? I let my hand wander in that direction.
Blackbeard shook his head. "Not my problem” He grabbed my wandering hand and twisted the wrist, reached back of the seat and pulled out the laser. He stared at it, his mouth hanging open to show a dozen rotted teeth.
“Where’d you get this, you some kind of chief?” He looked at me with a mixture of suspicion, awe, and hate.
“No. I had money for a while once.”
He sneered and stuck the pistol in his waistband. “Where’s your food?" So much for his compassion. I jabbed a thumb toward the insulated box under the back of my seat. I’d still have the dry-packs and water I’d stashed in the hollow bottom of the passenger seat.
Cells, packs, and the fresh apples I’d picked up the day before were now all sitting in the dirt; the greasy-haired runt was tossing booty into a sack. Blackbeard strutted around toward the back of the car. "Hugger!” He barked. “Take your share!" Damn hugger was a decoy. I should have guessed.
I closed my door, raising my hand uselessly and automatically toward the touch-key, dropping it back into my lap, staring at the hole where my fuel cell had been like I could make it reappear. I had one more weapon within reach, but I’d have to slide into the passenger seat to grab hold of it.
My left wrist was not working very well. I propped it in my lap and began to wiggle across the seat. Could I get to the gun, grab it, and shoot them all before any of them got me? Not much chance. Would it be smarter to assume these germs weren’t planning to kill me? No, never assume. Especially, never assume that anyone ever plans anything.
The hugger was singing, dancing to his own tune. Dancing around the pile of booty and the runt picking it off the ground.
The song was a hundred years old at least. It was called ... what was it ... ? Oh, yes. "Imagine". "Imagine all the people ... " something-something-something.
Blackbeard was squinting at me. He’d noticed that I’d moved to the other seat. I pretended I’d done it so I could talk to him better, leaning out the window.
"Can't you at least let me keep one spare?" I yelled at him. He snorted and stalked slowly back toward me. Maybe he was willing to negotiate, after all.
He wasn't. He grabbed my collar, pulled me half outside through the window, and slammed his big pistol—not my sleek little laser—into the side of my head. A starburst of pain, but I didn't quite pass out, and weirdly, it occurred to me to be grateful that he’d hit a different part of my head than the car thieves in Rocky had. I felt a trickle of blood meander down my cheek. Damn. Blood again. Stomach turning, I reached up to touch the wound. Just an injury. Injuries heal.
He dropped me back onto my seat, his filthy hand closing around my throat. "I hate loudmouthed women." Then he laughed, showing those teeth again. "But I don't kill 'em, except when people pay me to."
That was nice to know.
“Even when they got red hair. I hate red hair.”
I always liked to think of it as auburn, but I decided not to argue with him again. He still had hold of my throat; I reached for the last front-of-the-car pistol anyway.
“Too bad you’re old and got red hair.” He let go of my neck and walked away. I had my fingers on the gun but waited. If he came back, I’d shoot him.
They let the hugger take a spare cell and one hydropack—take them where? And did he have a weapon hidden somewhere in those green rags?—loaded everything else into one of their cars and took off again, leaving the old crazy standing beside the road. Did they expect him to catch another fool that day? Not likely anyone else would come along. I hoped they rode out of the quarry and fed him once in a while. He was still singing. " … And no religion, too ... "
Helluva headache. My throat hurt and my wrist burned. As the guffaws of the bandits receded, so did my pain and nausea; I tried to shrug it all off and turn my attention to the business at hand. Grabbing the gun, I pushed open the car door and stumbled, head pounding, to where the hugger stood, shoving his share of the booty into his bag. He had stopped singing, intent on his work, lips pursed. He glanced up at me.
"Nice new gun you've got there. Trade you back your stuff for a ride." His eyes shifted nervously between my gun and the quarry where his friends were no doubt already tossing back the 100-proof.
"Give me the cell and put the pack in my car." He did as he was told. I slid the spare into the fuel-slot, while he dropped the hydropack in back and slammed the lid. Then he hoisted his foul-smelling sack over his shoulder and started to open the passenger side door.
"Take me to California. Dreamin’.” This guy seemed to be celebrating the centennial of the Summer of Love—a year early.
"Not going that far, green-man,” I lied, hoping he’d come up with a destination more like twenty-five miles into Nebraska.
“You have flowers in your hair.” I didn’t, but I was sure he saw some there. I waited. “Okay,” he said finally, “Maybe another time.” He turned and started walking toward the quarry, singing something about an American Pie.