Monday, November 10, 2008

Mark Dreizig (Part One)

Bobby Anderson carefully set his 28-gauge against the rotted old fencepost, spread the strands of the barbed wire apart, and looked at me and Pudge. "So, you coming? Or are you chicken?"

Pudge gave the rusty wire a dubious look. "Old Man Dreizig is pretty mean, Bobby."

"He took a potshot at Dewey Swanlund once," I added. "He don't like people on his land."

Bobby turned his head and looked out over the weedy, overgrown valley. "Ain't his land," Bobby said. "My daddy says the Federals seized it from my grandpa, right after the Rising. Old Man Dreizig is just a dirty squatter."

Pudge narrowed his eyes. "Then how come the marshal lets him farm it?"

Bobby cleared his throat and spat. "He ain't farming. He's digging up war souvenirs and selling 'em back East."

Pudge snorted. "War souvenirs!"

"It's true!" Bobby turned around, a mean look coming up fast in his eyes. "My daddy says the last big battle of the Rising was fought right here on this spot!"

Pudge looked away. "Go on, get real."

Bobby's face went black. He let go of the wire, stepped forward, and gave Pudge a hard shove that sent him stumbling. "You making fun of my daddy, fat boy?"

Pudge caught his balance, and his voice came back whiney and nervous. "No, Bobby, 'course not." He looked at me like a dog that knows it's in for a whipping. "We'd never make fun of Mister Anderson, would we, Jerry?" Bobby turned on me, the red anger boiling up through the roots of his short blond hair, and I thought, Thanks a lot, Pudge! Now he's locked on me!

I'd learned way back in third grade that when Bobby Anderson got mad, it didn't matter what you said, he just got madder. Five years of growing up since had only made his fists harder and his mean streak worse, so I just kept my mouth shut, shook my head No, and winced a little in anticipation.

Bobby seemed to cool down some. He settled for waving a fist under my nose and growling, "Don't you ever so much as let me think you're making fun of my daddy. He's a war hero, understand?"

I understood. My Dad died fighting the Federals a month before I was born and Pudge's dad never came back from the Reeducation Camp, but Bobby Anderson Senior is the town war hero, and my Mom says he's even got a scar on his butt to prove it. She also says when I'm older she'll explain why all the moms in town think that's so funny.

Looking a little disappointed that me and Pudge didn't need beating up, Bobby turned back to the fence and spread the wires again. "So, you two coming with me? Or do I tell everyone you're a couple of poogies?"

Pudge gave the rusty wire another hesitant look.

"Yeah," Bobby said, switching to a real oily and evil voice. "Poogies, that's it. You liked being at the Re-Ed Camp, didn't you? Must 'a been one of their favorites, even: a nice, soft, fat little white boy, the kind those big black Federal soldiers just love to—"

Pudge's face went all puffy and red and the hot tears started to form. "I ain't no damn poogie!" He cranked open the bolt of his .22 with an angry jerk that sent the cartridge flying. "I ain't..." Pushing the rifle into my hands, he ducked headfirst through the fence, caught a snag on the cuff of his jeans, ripped it free. "I ain't no God Damn poogie!" He was bleeding a little from the scratch on his ankle, but I don't think that was why he was crying.

Bobby looked at me. "Well?"

Well, I knew it was a bad idea, but I also knew Bobby'd tell everyone in town if I chickened out now. So I handed Pudge his .22, eased mine off to half-cock and passed it over, then squatted down and started poking around in the dust and weeds.

Which, of course, peeved Bobby. "Now what?"

"Gonna find Pudge's cartridge," I said, not looking up. "Maybe you Andersons got cash money to burn, but me and Mom sure as Hell don't." And also, I was hoping...

"Come on, Jerry," Pudge whined. He looked around, nervous. "Old Man Dreizig might see us up here."

That's the whole idea, Pudge. I turned a little to the left and started searching a different patch of ragweed. If I can just keep you squirming until you chicken out...

"Right there," Bobby said, pointing. "Behind your heel."

Aw, nuts. I picked up the cartridge, blew the dirt off, and made a great show of inspecting it. "Nice one," I said at last. "A little green around the primer, but the bullet's hardly corroded at all." I checked the headstamp. "Remington?" I looked up with a big smile. "You been holding out on me, Pudge?"

"I found it in Dewey Swanlund's basement," Pudge whimpered, twitching like he was about to wet his pants. "Now will you for Christ's sake hurry up?"

Since I'd pretty much run out of excuses, I stood up, ducked through the fence, then turned around to hold the wires apart while Bobby climbed through. Pudge traded me my rifle for his cartridge. While we were doing that, Bobby reached back over the fence, grabbed his shotgun, then turned back to me and cracked the shotgun open.

"For your information, jerkface," he yanked a shell out of the back pocket of his jeans and waved it under my nose, "this is a black-powder handload I made myself, using melted-down old lead fishing sinkers for shot. We Andersons don't take Government welfare money, we never signed no stinking surrender oath, and we sure as Hell don't have no God Damn Loyalist gun license!" He stuffed the shell into the barrel of his shotgun, snapped the gun shut with an angry flip. "And now that you've got that straight..."

"Oak trees," Pudge said.

That threw Bobby off his stride. "Huh?"

Pudge was checking out the horizon, nervous. He broke off long enough to point across the valley. "The woods on the side of that hill over there. Oak trees."


Pudge glanced around once more, then started tracing a route in the air. "So if we get behind this ridge here and follow it down to that sumac patch, we can circle around the west side of the marsh and get over to the woods without Old Man Dreizig seeing us. Ought to be plenty of squirrels in those oak trees, and the echoes'll make it hard to tell where all the shooting is going on."

Bobby, I guess, wasn't done being mad yet. "Squirrels?" He slapped himself on the back pocket of his jeans. "I got just six shells here, and I am not gonna waste 'em on no damn stinking squirrels!" He knocked aside Pudge's hand and started pointing out his own route. "No, we're gonna go around that side of the sumacs, cross the marsh over there, and scare up some ducks."

Bobby bullied and Pudge whined all the way down the back side of the ridge. We didn't see a thing, except for some redwing blackbirds in the marsh that perched on the ripe cattails and complained about all the noise we were making. The ducks heard Bobby and Pudge coming a good quarter-mile off and were gone long before we ever got into range.

An hour or two later, our feet were starting to dry out after the slog through the marsh, we'd made it over to the oak woods on the far side of the valley, and Bobby had pretty much cooled out. Pudge spotted a squirrel burying acorns in the dry brown leaves and knocked it over with one shot. I kicked up a cottontail but didn't even get my gun to my shoulder before it bounced out of sight. We followed the rabbit into a little dry gully that somebody'd used for a trash dump a few decades ago, and followed the gully down into a thick patch of bright yellow aspen. Skirting the aspen, we started back towards the marsh.

That's when the grouse exploded.

Understand, ruffed grouse don't flush until you just about step on them, and then they don't fly out and away like a pheasant, they sort of blast off, straight up, a feather-covered rocket about the size of a chicken and making a ton of noise. So I was about startled out of my underwear, but Bobby was keen to kill something so he had his gun cocked, shouldered, and fired before I could even blink.

Touching off that load of black powder just added to the general smoke and fire and brimstone effect.

"Got it!" Bobby shouted. He cracked open his shotgun, pulled out the smoking shell, and slapped in a fresh one.

'The hell you did," Pudge said. "Missed clean."

"Did not! It dropped right over there!" He snapped his gun shut and used it one-handed like a pointer. "You saw it, right, Jerry?"

I coughed once and blinked the smoke-tears from my eyes. "All I saw was smoke."

Bobby ignored me and turned back to Pudge. "Swear to God, I saw it drop right over there." I got my eyes clear enough to look in the direction he was pointing, and saw a few blue wisps starting to curl up from the dry grass and fallen leaves.

"Uh, Bobby? What exactly are you using for wads in those home-made shells of yours?"

Bobby broke off arguing with Pudge long enough to turn back to me. "Crumpled up old newspaper. Why?" He followed the line my eyes were taking, saw the first little tongue of flame lick out from the litter, and spat out, "Oh, sweet Jesus!" Pudge saw the fire, too, and reacted by jumping right into the middle of it.

That's not as crazy as it sounds. You grow up on the tallgrass prairie, where the Environmental Corps policy is to let it burn naturally and one controlled wild fire can wipe out an entire town, and you get sort of used to the idea of stamping out small grass fires almost by reflex.

Still, by the time we had every last ember dead cold and out, Bobby'd lost track of where he thought he saw the grouse go down, so we had to fan out into the underbrush to search for it. Pudge took center, I took left, Bobby took right. I was poking around in some scrub willows when I heard Pudge stop moving and call out.


"Find it?" Bobby answered.


I cut back in towards Pudge and found him standing in the middle of a big tangle of wild raspberries, stock-still and white as a klan robe. "What is it, Pudge?"

Hand trembling, he pointed. "A coffin."

"Oh, cool!" Bobby said. He tried plowing in from the right side but got stopped short by the raspberries and had to go back around the front way. I went the way Pudge went in.

I was disappointed. The thing Pudge was staring at was all corroded grayish-green metal, sort of rounded, maybe eight feet long and at least half-buried in the dirt. "It's just an old water heater or something," I called to Bobby. "Probably washed down the hill from the garbage dump." I found a clear spot in the raspberries and took a step closer to it.

"It's a coffin," Pudge insisted. "A Federal Army coffin. I seen 'em before."

"Get real," I said to Pudge.

Bobby had worked his way in to the other end of the thing. "I dunno, Jerry," he said to me. "I think Pudge could be right."

"Oh sure, like you see coffins all the time."

"No," Bobby said. "There's all kinds of writing on this end. Army serial numbers, stuff like that." He crouched before it, set his shotgun down, and started into clicking and punching things. "There's all sorts 'a neat switches and buttons and—"

And just like that, a thin plane of blue light swept across his face.

Something started humming.

A deep whump! kicked in, and rose slowly to a soft, high-pitched whine. With a creak and a groan, ancient rusty hinges started to turn. The top began to rise.

Not top. Lid.

"Jesus H. Christ!" Bobby fell over backward, clawing to get away from the thing. I stuck around long enough to catch one glimpse of a bony-fingered hand reaching out from inside to grip the edge of the lid, then bolted out of there like a terrified cottontail with a whole pack of hungry rabid beagles on my tail. Pudge was still rooted to where he was standing. I sort of half-pushed and half-dragged him into motion, and as the coffin lid fell open with a crash! behind us we lit out up the hill and into the oaks.

Fifty yards upslope, Pudge latched onto my arm and dragged me to a stop. "Bobby! We can't leave Bobby!" We both turned around.

Long as I live, I will never forget that sight. Maybe we couldn't leave Bobby, but he was sure as Hell leaving us. There he was, a good 200 yards out into the marsh and running like mad, with his shotgun in one hand and his shirt-tails flapping like a big crow going into a heavy headwind. At first I couldn't see what he was running from.

Then it moved.

Jesus. It was — well, some kind of machine, anyway. Not shaped like a man. Not shaped like a tractor. Mostly like a spider, I guess, though I got the idea it had the wrong number of legs. The body was a small, knobbly thing, with no real clear head. It moved in quick, scuttling motions.

And then it stopped. And when it was perfectly still, it just plain disappeared into the tall grass.

Bobby had a good headstart. At first I thought the thing hadn't seen him and was heading off in a different direction. Then it moved again, and I realized it was stalking around to cut him off. Bobby made maybe another 50 yards, scrambling out of the mud, up to the top of a small hummock.

The thing snapped up to its full straight-legged height. A lance of fiery red light shot out from one end.

Bobby exploded.

Pudge screamed. I slapped a hand over his mouth and wrestled him down as he went spastic. We thrashed aorund in the sticks and dry leaves for a couple seconds, until I got him pinned and got my face up next to his ear. "Pudge! Pudge!"

He went rigid, but stopped fighting me. I let go of his mouth, a little. "Bobby?" he whispered. I stuck my head up and grabbed a quick look. All there was where Bobby'd been standing was a smoking hole in the dirt and a few smouldering cattails.

"He's dead." Pudge went nuts on me again. I got him into a hammerlock this time and held on 'til he got control of himself.

He relaxed, sort of. Blinked at me a few times. I eased off my old. "Jerry?" he whispered, when I let go of his mouth. "What the Hillary is it?"

I risked another glance, but couldn't see it. "Some kind of Army machine," I said. "Musta been lying out here for the last twelve years. I guess Bobby's old man was right." Pudge went taut on me for a second, but got control of himself before I had to wrestle him any more.

Funny. In the back of my head I had this feeling like I should be every bit as scared as Pudge, but in the front of my mind everything was just as clear as could be and totally locked on the problem of figuring out how to get us both out of there alive. I shut my eyes, and listened. Tuned out the sound of Pudge's whimpering and heavy breathing. Tuned out the sound of the breeze in the cattails, and the dried oak leaves.

If the thing was moving anywhere nearby, it was completely silent. Which, given how big it was, didn't make sense, so it had to be somewhere else, or else not moving.

I got off Pudge and opened my eyes. "Listen. We gotta get out of here."

Pudge rolled his eyes. "Now that is a Revelation."

"No, listen. You remember Old Man Tollefson, that history teacher who got himself dragged off to Re-Ed? Remember how he always said it was a lie, about the Federals being too humane to use 'bots during the Rising? He said the real problem was the 'bots were too dumb to tell the difference between Rebels and God Damn Loyalists, so they just killed everybody?"

I gave Pudge a few seconds to chew that one over. All he came up with was, "So?"

"So that thing out there still thinks it's fighting the Rising. It's going to kill everybody it sees."

That, I think, got through to Pudge. "Somebody's got to warn the town," he said, quiet.

I took another peek at the marsh and still didn't see any robot, so I risked getting up to a crouch. Nothing shot at me. "What can the town do?" I asked Pudge. "We're pacified, but for a couple single-shot .22's and some antique shotguns. We got to find the Occupation Marshal."

Pudge sat up like he'd found the splinter in the outhouse seat, looked at me hard, and blanched dead white. "And the Marshal will call in Federal troops," he whispered.

"Yeah." I looked down. "Sorry, Pudge."

Pudge chewed his lower lip a few seconds, blinked back a few tears, then wiped his eyes with the back of his left hand. "That thing killed Bobby," he said, between sniffles. "We gotta stop it before it kills anyone else. We got to."

"Yeah." But then that little voice in the back of my head piped up again, saying, Stop it? Hell, you got to get away from it, first!

Pudge choked back whatever he was feeling, got to his knees, crawled over beside me. "So, any great ideas?"

I found a small stick about the size of a pencil, smoothed a spot in the soft dirt, and started into sketching. "Yeah. We're here, and the marsh is there, and the 'bot is—," I shrugged. "And County M is over about there. There's two of us, and one of it, so I'm thinking we'll have a better chance of getting through if we split up. You go west." I sketched a line off to the right. "You can use the woods for cover most of the way and catch the highway about here. Maybe hitch a ride."

Pudge scowled at the map in the dirt. "And you go east?"

I tried a grin. It fell apart. Truth to tell, the shudders were finally starting to catch up with me. "I climb hills better'n you do." I went back to looking at the marsh, wondering where the thing was hiding, and if it was going to... to...

Pudge took another long stare at the map, then crawled forward to where he'd dropped his .22 while we were wrestling. "Okay. See you in town." He gave me a nervous, scared smile. I tried to return something cocky and confident, but all I managed was a facial twitch and a sort of squeak.

Cradling his .22, moving in a crouch, Pudge set off to the west. In half a minute, he'd disappeared into the underbrush.

Well, Jerry, my little voice said, it's your stupid idea, and now you're stuck with it. Fighting the urge to run screaming after Pudge, I picked up my .22, checked to make sure the barrel wasn't plugged with dirt, then headed the other way. be continued...