Free Read Chapters 23 & 24

CHAPTER 23
THE UNDERPASS

underpass

Crossing of US 41 and Interstate 74, western Indiana Territory

November 11, 2128

Off the road and near a small huddle of hemlocks, under the thin gray sky, Malila sat. The temperature had plummeted since sunup, and the wind had backed into the northwest. Before noon, low clouds had obscured the sky. She could barely swallow enough of the frigid slurried water to satisfy Jesse’s watchful supervision. Within the last hour, the old man had spotted a road to the south, calling it Old 41, telling her it ran under the highway they were following, Eye 74, one more of the roads that stretched across the prairie from horizon to horizon. The savage names were always so picturesque.

Jesse, after giving her their cache of food, left her in the lee of the evergreens.

“If I am tardy now, lass, let’s say past sundown, walk back west and take the last road we passed going north, on your right.”

“I know which way is north, old man. But I guess, since I have the food, you will find me.”

“My thinking precisely, my friend.”

“I’m not your friend!”

He took the pulse rifle with him.

Malila ducked her face into her jacket, breathing her warmth back into herself, glad for the weight and warmth of her backpack shielding her from the wind. Her O-A hummed painlessly in the background, the annoying mental irritation she had noted during the first week now gone.

They had met no travelers. She’d seen no smoke, no tracks other than animals, and smelled nothing but the coming winter. All the rivers they had crossed flowed west or south. Unity maps showed the outlands as a narrow belt of Scorched and waterless land between the Rampart and the western republics, in most places no more than 150 klicks wide. However, Malila reasoned there must be a great river between the highlands near the Rampart and the highlands out west. Jesse called it the Mississippi River, a name too grotesque to take seriously.

Malila jumped as Jesse joggled her out of her doze.

“Nice to see my absence has not made you overanxious, lass.”

Malila grimaced at him, staggering to her feet as the old man repacked his pack and hoisted it with his usual grunt. She followed him down the long, oblique slope to the underpass, then through it to the opposite side, the dim light slipping into the space like a beggar. When they had reached the north side of the underpass, Jesse motioned for her to stop as he continued farther north, up the side, and out of sight.

In a few minutes, he was back, beaming. “No one home. It looks like we have a place out of the storm.”

“How long do you think it will rain?” she asked, hoping for a day of rest, snug out of the wind.

“I don’t think it will rain at all! Have you never seen it snow?”

“Of course, I go to VerMon all the time to train.”

“Big difference between a noun and a verb, lass!”

“Even so,” he continued, “it is early in the season. It shouldn’t last for long. If we had skis, we could make some real time, but as ’tis, we are stuck here for at least a day. I’ll get wood enough to last us a while.”

The old man emptied their jerky into the small cook pot before taking the remainder of it with him, hoisting the meagre remains of their food cache into a tree while Malila went to start the fire.

By the time Jesse returned, the first flakes were drifting down. The fire, stoked with the new fuel and illuminating graffiti of obscure provenance on the crumbling walls, did little to warm Malila as she shivered in the cave-like corner of the underpass. She wrapped her clothes around her, even grabbing some of the sleeping furs as she watched the fire.

Jesse set about cooking her share of a meager meal, a stew of sorts in the single small pot he carried. Malila’s stomach grumbled as the last of the jerky, scraps of trail bread, and some roots that Jesse had dug up that day bubbled in the pot.

“What do you call this, old man?”

“Specialité de la maison, ragout avec de bison et detritus, mademoiselle.”

“Sounds appetizing,” she said as she made a face at him.

“If we can’t move and run out of food, what are we going to eat?” she asked between bites.

Jesse grimaced but answered, “While it snows, not much. I can scrape some tree bark, and there is a stream to the north with cattails. Dig the roots and bake ’em. Maybe dip the stream for fish.”

Malila ignored the look and the comment and returned to eating. It was horrid. She forced herself to swallow, knowing that she needed the energy just to be warm enough to sleep. When she finished, Jesse set about cooking another batch in the small pot for himself.

Malila watched the fire, warm, with a full belly, wrapped in the obscurity of the swirling snow. Every day’s trek had exhausted her, but today was worse. The cold wind eroded her well-being, and the noise in her head, even dulled to a barely perceptible hum, still bore upon her. Whether it was the cold or their dwindling supplies, Malila felt used up. Orange tongues of flame licked along a small branch, building and adding their glow to the whole fire. The heat, splashing across her face and hands, settled her. Jesse stirred his own meal without comment.

Malila awoke with a start. A dribble of drool chilled her chin. The fire was still burning, but the branch she had been watching was now just a few disconnected gray coals. Newly added branches sent sparks drifting up into the dark beams raftering their camp. Wavering shadows showed a drag in the shin-deep snow along the lowest point of the underpass to the north—no sign of a footprint. The small pot, already clean, was upended near the fire. No doubt the old man had gone to get firewood.

She looked down. Jesse’s odd short knife was out of its sheath and on the ground in front of her: it was a round-backed, drop-point blade with a small back bar for fine work and finger rings in the handle. The old man never left his blades unsheathed, except when he was using them. The blade, looking molten in the firelight, pointed at her. He had not woken her as he’d left. Malila tried to control a shiver as she scooped up the knife, sheathed it, and wedged it into the waistband in the small of her back.

There must have been a noise; Malila looked into the swirling snow to the south side of the underpass. Outside the cone of the fire’s light, the white flakes were a chaos of motion. She stared into the maelstrom, still muzzy from her nap and annoyed at the old man for leaving her.

It was then she saw the hunched darkness against the black. It shuffled, turning from side to side as if smelling the trail. There was no head, just a huddle of shapes, ill-defined and ominous. As it drew nearer, Malila could make out the shaggy coat. A pair of lifeless eyes rested on the top of the heap of fur. The form lumbered into the light.

CHAPTER 24

BEAR

bear

The man was of average height, but there was an adamant solidity to him, Malila thought. He wore the skin of a large bear, the muzzle fur skinned out and tanned, making a gruesome hood, with the eyeless eyes perched on the man’s head. His hair was as black as the bearskin and hung cowl-like around his face. Dark eyes lurked under bushy eyebrows almost hidden in the grotesque hood.

As the figure moved nearer her fire, the man’s large hands shucked off the leather shooter’s mittens and spread open to grasp the heat of the blaze.

“Good evening, Miss. I was hoping to share your fire. The name is Edward Phillips, but most people around here call me Bear.”

He looked sideways at her. It was several seconds before he smiled.

Malila had no idea how to respond. All people of the outlands had reverted to savagery, she knew. The old man showed that much to be true. She understood her choices here: take this unknown man into her confidence or remain in captivity with Jesse. The might and wealth of the Unity should buy her a welcome almost anywhere. Fear and greed were durable motives. Her choice was obvious. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, she thought.

Just before she spoke, however, another saying resonated inside her head: Better the enemy you know than the one you do not know. In the moments she had to choose, the man’s fetid smell decided for her.

“I’m Jane. My friends are coming back in a minute,” she said perhaps a little too late.

This greasy man looked around the campsite, hesitant and uneasy at first. Without invitation, he sat on his heels near the fire, the flames glinting from his eyes. He rocked on his heels and again spread his raw-boned hands over the warmth. He licked his lips as he looked into the flames and started questioning her.

“Where did you say you were coming from, Miss?”

“I didn’t. We are coming from Wiscomsin and going to Kentucky.”

It did not sound quite right. She looked at the man without blinking. It was always good to keep as much truth in a lie as convenient, she knew.

“And your man, where is he? Seems he took his pack with him when he left.”

“He is coming back soon. I’m not sure you ought to be here when he comes back. He mightn’t like it.”

Malila had missed the fact that Jesse had taken his pack, a clear indication he was abandoning her. Her face froze as she tried to act nonchalant. She had been foolish to brandish the possibility of returning companions.

“That isn’t very hospitable, Miss. The night is cold, and the weather’s ugly. No one should be denied shelter on a night like this,” Bear said with a reasonable smile.

Malila had no idea what constituted outland hospitality. By no means should she let this man get too close to her. She ought to make an escape herself. Jesse had said the snow would not last.

Stringing together phrases that she hoped sounded like Jesse, she said, “Okay, I guess you can bed down over there. We are out of food. I cannot offer you anything. But you can have some coals and dry wood to start your fire over there.” She gestured again across the underpass to the far side.

The man did not answer, but his head swiveled to look at her. His appearance had altered in the few seconds since he’d last spoken. He looked up at her through black, bushy eyebrows and wrenched his face into a grimace of amusement. He fished a small orange whistle out from under layers of dingy shirts and blew three short blasts.

“I like the fire and the company well enough here.” He stood.

Almost at once, dark shapes, hunched against the wind, climbed down the slopes at both ends of the underpass, half-walking, half-sliding in the shin-deep snow, carrying skis and long guns.

Within seconds, Malila was surrounded by men stamping snow off their legs. Most wore beards. Even in the cold, Malila smelled poorly tanned hides and unwashed bodies. Her O-A’s low-level hum had risen to a keen inside her head.

Bear rose and smiled as his men approached.

“Let me do some introductions, Miss. These gentlemen are what you might call my fellow travelers. We sort of patrol this stretch of the I-74 to keep it free of … hazards to navigation. As it happens, the weather has reduced our prospects. That is, until George noticed your fire. So we’re just being friendly-like and welcoming you to the neighborhood, you traveling alone and all. Boys, this here is Jane. I’ll let you introduce yourselves … in private.”

While he was speaking, several of the men had started emptying Malila’s pack, throwing the contents onto the frozen ground and pawing through them. Malila tried to move to one side of the men. A hand reached from behind her and gripped her across her breasts. A yelp of surprise and pain escaped her lips and fixed the men’s attention.

“Easy, boys, the rules are the same. Equal shares and double for the captain, just like we agreed.”

Bear was aiming a sidearm toward the ground negligently, but the threat was immediate and well understood.

“Just checking the inventory, Bear, no harm done,” said a large man with a ginger beard and an uncertain smile.

The man’s huge belt buckle ground into her back, moving Jesse’s short knife on occasion.

“’Course not, Jimmy. No harm at all. George is the lucky one to get her first. He sighted the fire. Harry, you go find him so we can get started. The sooner he gets done, the sooner we all get a piece,” Bear said in a reasonable, businesslike voice.

Bear turned to another man. “Pete, let’s get some food up. You others go get some more wood. This pile won’t last us through the night. I think our lady friend here will want the fire nice and warm. Isn’t that right, Miss?”

“I’m an officer of the Democratic Unity Forces for Security! If you take me to your authorities, no harm will come to you.” Her voice sounded shrill, even panicked.

Jimmy paused in midmolestation as all heads turned to watch how Bear would react.

“Well, Miss Great and Powerful General, ma’am, you appear to be out of uniform and in enemy territory.” At a nod from the man, Jimmy pulled her shirt open, spilling her breasts into the dim light of the fire. The men grinned and hooted their appreciation.

“Worse and worse, ma’am.” Bear shook his head. “I think you must be a spy!”

It was obvious to her that fear or favor of the Unity did not extend to this patch of nowhere. Pretending to lapse into apathy and keeping her head down, Malila counted nine men, plus the absent George. She surprised herself at her revulsion at these leering men.

Since she was an E7, she had found pleasure-sex enjoyable enough with her patrons. This would be very different; this would be a grunting obscenity. She could not have put a name to it before. There was an incorrectness … a wrongness to it. These men wanted to hurt her and to make her fear, using her own body to do so, like overgrown children tormenting smaller ones by making them hit themselves with their own fists.

She had never understood the meaning of evil in her life. Evil was a media word for the losers: “Unity District Conquers the Evil of Hoarding.” The malefactors paraded before the ’nets were always small, frightened, and grubby; this evil was rank and brutal. Her heart started racing, almost pounding out of her chest. Jimmy still held her, moving his hands over her breasts and between her legs despite her best efforts to cover herself.

The man sent out to fetch George and start her serial rape returned. He kicked off his skis and went over to the fire, spreading his hands to the enlarged blaze. It was a few seconds before Bear asked him, “Harry, is George coming?”

Amid some hesitant chuckles, the man, blinking, looked up, snow melting from his wool cap and beard.

“I didn’t find him. I saw some tracks and figured he had come in to get his first piece. Isn’t he here?”

The men stopped laughing and looked up. The only sound was the low moan of the wind and the hiss of falling snow.

A muffled crack of a projectile rifle echoed through the darkness, along with a sound that could have been a man’s wail.

/**/

bear underpass

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