Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mark Dreizig (Part Two)

...continued from Part One...

I made maybe half a mile before I realized I was being followed. At first it was just that prickly "watched" feeling on the back of my neck. Then I heard the snap of a large twig, loud and clear. I spun around.

Nothing back there. At least, nothing I could see.

I picked up the pace. The oak trees were thinning out as I reached the east end of the woods, and the underbrush getting thicker and thornier, so I moved up slope. Something large crashed through the bushes somewhere behind and below me. I dove behind a tree and looked back.

Nothing, again. But two hundred yards off, maybe, there was a break in the underbrush I didn't remember seeing before.

I scrambled to my feet and headed further up the slope. The pitch was steeper here, with occasional little limestone outcroppings. The oaks had completely given way to dried-out grass, loose gravel, and sumacs. The going was tough, but I figured that had to work both ways.

It did. I heard metal skitter off loose rock. Spun around quick enough to catch a glimpse of the thing as it momentarily lost its footing and slid sideways a few feet.

Then mechanical claws dug into the dry dirt, and it froze still. And vanished.

That did it. Whatever control I'd found when Bobby got killed, I lost it completely now. I screamed. Turned around. Lit out across the hillside as fast as I could scramble. Lost my footing and tumbled twenty feet down the slope. Caught my boot on a naked root; went sprawling and flailing face-first into the dust and gravel. Found my rifle again and clawed my way back up the slope with my bare hands, screaming the whole while. I guess that's when the 'bot decided there was no point staying invisible any longer. I heard a clacking of metal pincers, then heavy mechanical feet thudding towards me, and looked up in time to see a glittery stream of red-hot light come spitting out from a little dome on the near end of the body—

And miss me. Completely. By a good three feet, at least. A bush somewhere behind me whuffed! into flame. The robot kept charging forward. I could clearly see some sort of skeletal metal arms unfolding from the underside of the body, reaching for me with bony gray metal claw-fingers...

And then the 'bot hit a patch of loose gravel, lost its footing, overbalanced and pitched sideways, and just exactly like a big fat spider, rolled all its legs into a tight ball and went bouncing end over end all the way down the slope, to land with a crash in the scrub willows far below.

For a minute, I dared to have half a hope—

Then, from the tangle, one slender leg extended. And another. And a third, and a fourth. And then the 'bot sprouted arms and cutters, and began working on righting and freeing itself.

I dropped my rifle and went straight up the side of the bluff. Didn't even slow down for the 20-foot sheer limestone outcropping at the top. Was up and over that like a monkey, hit the grassy tableland at a run, and was still running and screaming my lungs out when Old Man Dreizig tackled me, hog-tied me, and threw me into the back of his 4x4 pickup truck.

A splash of cold water hit me in the face, and brought me back to—

A kitchen, in an incredibly dirt-poor rathole of a farmhouse. The stove looked like it hadn't been used, much less cleaned, in fifteen years. There were a couple of bulging old tin cans with labels peeling off sitting on the shelf; a set of rust-and-cast-iron skillets hanging on big hooks over the stove. I was sitting, awkward, on a splintery old bentwood chair. I tried to move. My wrists were tied together behind the back of the chair, and then tied tight to my ankles.

Old Man Dreizig stepped into view, holding a dripping bucket. "Now, let's try this again," he said. "Who are you?"

"Jerry Olafson," I said. "From Bagley." I blinked, and shuddered. No, this can't be real. None of this is real. In another minute Mom is gonna wake me for school and even have real bacon for breakfast...

"I knew your father," Dreizig said, nodding. Now that I finally had a clear look at him, he was even more old, scarred, and ugly than I'd ever heard. Boy, I'm glad this is a dream!

"And you were out poaching with an illegal gun," Dreizig said, "but something scared you, and you dropped it and ran."

Huh? I didn't know my nightmares shared news with each other...

Dreizig smiled, took a drink from the bucket and set it down, and then laid a heavy, gnarled hand on my shoulder. "Now, tell me again about this dead boy you think you saw."

Omigod, it's not a dream! And it's still out there! BOBBY! I fought and bucked against the ropes like a wild bronco. A joint in the wood chair parted with a splintery crack.

The smile vanished. Old Man Dreizig grabbed my shoulders with a grip like a pair of steel clamps and lifted both me and the chair clean off the floor. "What did you see out there?"

Somehow I found a shred of wits to hang onto. I blurted out the story, short and clear and as best I could. The telling calmed me, a little.

Gently, Dreizig set me back down on the floor and put his left hand to his jagged chin. "Oh, dear." Then, just like that, he turned on me, the expression in his dark eyes all cold and unreadable but the tone of his voice like the very Anger of God. "You little idiot! Do you have any idea..." His left hand shot forward, the pointed index finger hitting me in the chest like a bar of iron, pinning me to the chair. "Describe the machine again! Every detail!"

I told him everything I could remember about the 'bot. Every last bit: that weird coffin we found it in. The way its arms sort of unfolded from the underside of its body. Those fingers that looked like dull gray metal bones with sharp little claws. The way its eyes—I couldn't remember how many, it had at least eight, maybe twelve—sat in clusters on the front and sides of its head.

He stroked his craggy, scarred face some more. "Oh God and Jesus Christ in Heaven," he said at last. "You boys have stirred up a real nightmare. An HK-211." He stopped rubbing his chin, and slowly shook his head. "I don't know if I even can...." His voice tapered off.

"Can what?" I asked. He twitched a little, like he'd forgotten I was there.

He looked right through me, tried that TV-news fake smile again. The way he could switch moods just like that was starting to unnerve me. "Jerry, if I untie these ropes, do you promise not to run away or scream?"

Some choice. I nodded.

"Good." He moved around behind the chair, and started pulling out the knots. "Son, I expect they tell a lot of stories about me in town. What have you heard?"

The ropes came off my hands. I got my arms in front of me again and rubbed my wrists until the feeling started to come back. "They mostly talk about the war," I said at last. "They say you dig up war souvenirs and sell 'em back East."

He crouched down behind me and started untying the ropes around my ankles. "Oh? They say that?"

The rest of the ropes came off. I stretched my legs out in front of me and started rubbing the cramps out of my thighs. "They say there was a big battle right here, on this farm. Near the end of the Rising."

"A battle?" He came around in front of me, coiling the rope and shaking his head. Then, with that spooky suddenness of his, he snapped his face up and looked me straight in the eye. "Are you at all interested in learning the truth?"

What I was mostly interested in was getting away from this weird old geezer, but I didn't know if I was ready to try that. "Sure," I said, to buy some time.

His ugly face got that faraway look old people get when they're talking memories, and his voice went a little ragged. "It was in the last days of the Rising, that much is true. But there wasn't any battle. An Army cargo-lifter en route for Minneapolis was sabotaged and crashed here. On this farm. In that valley off to the south."

He looked straight at me, and something that I took for sadness crept into his glassy dark eyes. "It was a classified flight. Classified cargo. Munitions. Materials. Things they were trying out in a last-ditch attempt to restore order in the inner cities. I was a Captain in the 3rd Mechanized, then. My unit was sent in to secure the crash site. There was looting." He paused. Looked away. His voice dropped to a soft pitch.

"We were ordered to shoot the looters."

His head snapped up. He took a quick glance out the dusty, fly-specked kitchen window, then turned to me. "It was a debacle. Later on, I was court-martialed, and my unit—disbanded. Disgraced. I came back to this farm, because I knew the Army had only bothered to recover the materials it considered worth salvaging." He stooped, picked up the water bucket, took another deep drink.

He set the bucket down and wiped his face with the back of his hand. "I have spent the last twelve years digging up and disarming the things which were left behind," he said. He took a quick step towards me and leaned in close, so I had a good clear look at his ugly ruin of a face. "These are not battle scars, my young friend. Not all that is buried welcomes resurrection."

And just like that, his mood flipped again. He jerked back from me, spun around on his heel, and marched out of the kitchen. "Now, come!"

I staggered to my feet and for some crazy reason I'll never understand followed the old guy. Past a rust-stained toilet that had been dry for years. Past a shower stall that was full of old tools and oil jugs and paint cans. Through a living room decorated with broken-out windows, birds' nests, dried leaves, and a wrecked coil-spring-and-stuffing-and-mouse-turd thing that may once have been a sofa.

I had trouble believing my eyes. "Mister Dreizig, do you like, live here?"

"If you want to call it living," he said, without breaking stride.

We ended up in a dark, musty, back bedroom. There was an ugly old steel-frame double-bed in there, and a clothes rack that held three or four tattered military-style jumpsuits. Dreizig dropped to his knees on the hard floor and reached a hand way under the bed. A white-footed deermouse scampered out the other side. I heard him latch onto something heavy and drag it out: a camouflaged footlocker, I guessed.

"My young friend," he said, "I fear you have awakened my doom. What you saw out there is an Alliant TechSystems HK-211 Hunter-Killer Pacification Robot." He spun the footlocker around on the floor until he was happy with it, then started popping latches. "It is relentless, remorseless, a master at camouflage, and extremely lethal." The lid of the footlocker unsealed with the sound of sticky old rubber gaskets being torn to shreds.

"And I honestly don't know if I can stop it," he said softly.

He flipped up the lid of the footlocker. There was another, chrome-colored box inside, with some kind of combination lock and panel and button thing on the front. Dreizig lifted the chrome box out and set it on the bed.

His loud voice came back. "Fortunately, we have three advantages! The first is that the HK-211 is stupid. Vast data processing power, but no actual intelligence." He began thumbing the buttons and spinning the lock tumblers with a finger speed that surprised me. "The second—" He stopped, and smiled at me. "The second is that there must be a fault in its targeting systems. You're still alive." He went back to the locked box and finished entering the combination. He twisted a knob. The lid popped open. "And the third advantage—"

He lifted a massive black handgun out of the box.

"—is this."

He grinned, ear to ear.

For a few seconds, all I could do was blink. I mean, I'd seen pictures of handguns before, in history books and all that. This one looked kind of like one of those antique German things: a Luger, I think is what they called them. Except this one had all kinds of extra controls, and radiator fins on that super-long barrel, and the action had a whole bunch of extra pipes and tubes and stuff that stuck out way too far in back. While I was trying to lean in and get a real close look at it and figure out exactly what the heck is was, Dreizig fished a wire shoulder stock out of the lock box and clipped it onto the back of the pistol. The way he fondled and caressed that gun was downright scary.

And right about that moment is when sanity checked back in and had a little word with me. "Uh, Mister Dreizig, aren't we forgetting one other advantage we have?"

He petted the pistol like it was his favorite dog, thumbed a speck of imaginary dirt off the barrel, and smiled up at me. "What's that?"

"Your truck. Why don't we just drive into town, find the Occupation Marshal, and let him call in the Federal troops?"

Dreizig thought it over a moment, then shook his head. "No, I can't do that."

"Why not?"

"Because this," he said, as he smiled, and put the wire stock to his shoulder, and squinted through the sights, and started fiddling with the gun's controls, "is my dharma."

Fifteen minutes later we were back inside Dreizig's rusted-out 4x4, blasting across the tallgrass prairie, throwing up a rooster tail of dust and bouncing down a jackhammer washboard of a cowpath that Dreizig claimed was the road into the eastern end of the valley. I was belted in and hanging on for dear life. Dreizig was somehow managing to both hold the steering wheel and shift with his left hand and fondle his gun with his right.

Just at that moment, I didn't have a worry in the world about being killed by the HK-211. The way Dreizig was driving, I figured we'd be dead and cold long before the 'bot ever caught first wind of us.

"Mister Dreizig!" I had to shout to be heard over the wind noise and flapping fenders. "Where the Hell are we going?"

"To Valhalla!" he shouted right back.

"Can't you—" We slammed into a pothole that about knocked my back fillings out, then bounced high and came down hard. "Can't you drop me off at the next corner and go there yourself?"

"NO!" He turned that mad grin and steely cold stare on me again. "You must come with me, Jerry Olafson! You! I knew your father!"

He looked back at the trail again, just in time to steer us right smack through the middle of a small patch of young aspen. "I know the names and faces," he said clearly, "of all the civilians that my troops killed."


For a few fractions of a second, the cab of that truck turned into a very cold and silent place. All I could hear was the blood pounding in my ears.

Then we bottomed out on a prairie dog mound and lost the left-side muffler.

"You must come with me, Jerry Olafson!" He threw the truck into a heart-stopping slalom around an old abandoned hay mower, snapped it back on track, and punched the gas. "I would have killed myself years ago, but could not, and wondered why! Now I know! Atonement!"

With a stomach-turning lurch, the pickup dropped into a dry gully, clawed its way up through the other side, and launched itself about ten feet into the air. When we hit ground again the right side running board cracked off and went tumbling away in the dust behind us.

"You must watch me!" Dreizig howled. "I may be destroyed in this battle! I may save every innocent life in your town! But either way, the son of David Olafson—" A close miss with an elm tree took off the door mirror on the driver's side. "—will bear witness to the honor of the last of the 3rd Mechanized!"

Oh, swell. And the peasant folk will tell the tale for generations to come. Personally, the killer 'bot was starting to look not so bad, and I was really starting to wish I'd let Bobby call me a chicken.

Then another thought occurred to me. "Mister Dreizig?" We banged rapid-fire across a short chain of potholes. "How are you gonna find this thing? It's invisible!"

Another swerve, for no good reason I could see. "No, it's not!" Dreizig shouted back. "That is physically impossible! The HK-211 just has very good active epidural camouflage!" The trail—if there was one—petered out, and we plowed headlong into a sea of tall dry grass. "The robot is perfectly visible!" he added. "If you only know how to look for it!"

After a few more prairie dog mounds I realized he wasn't going to share the secret, so I asked. "And how's that?"

He stared straight at me, as if considering a reply.

He went back to watching where we were going, and maybe even steering. "Never mind. You just help me to get near it, and I will handle the rest."

We popped over a small rise and flew out onto the tableland at the top of the bluffs. Dreizig slapped the truck into neutral, killed the engine, and let us coast the last hundred yards or so. "Here's where it gets sticky, lad." He gave me a wink and a grin, then popped his door open and bailed out while the truck was still rolling.

I wasted a few seconds wondering if the brakes would work or if I could steer the thing away from the bluff edge or something—and marveling at how quiet the truck was with the motor off, save for the swaying creak of the suspension and the scrape of dried weeds poking through the holes in the floorboards—before my brain finally kicked in and I followed Dreizig's example. Undid my seatbelt, opened my door, and bailed out. Hit the ground with a nice little tuck 'n' roll that my tumbling coach would have loved. Came up in a crouch, on the balls of my feet.

The truck slammed into a tree stump hidden in the grass and came to an instant stop. I stood up.

"Get down!" Dreizig hissed, somewhere in the weeds behind me. "The HK has superb IR optics and that truck's engine block is the hottest infra-red source for miles around! We'll have incoming fire any second now!" I dropped to a crouch again, turned, and spotted Dreizig in the weeds about twenty yards off. He was squatted low, cradling the gun, and duck-walking fast like no old man I've ever seen. We made brief eye contact, then he slipped back into the tall grass and headed west.

I skittered after him. Another hundred yards or so, and I caught up with him on a limestone outcropping at the very edge of the bluff. I looked back at the truck.

"It didn't blow up," I whispered. "Is that good?"

Dreizig shrugged. "Maybe. I was hoping we could draw the HK out and get this over with quickly." He looked around, then laid his hand on the limestone. "This is where you came up." (Which made me wonder: had he been watching me, Pudge, and Bobby all along? I didn't like that thought.) Without another word, Dreizig got down flat on his belly, like a lizard, and went headfirst over the side.

After a moment or two of waffling, I went after him, but climbing down in the normal feet-and-butt-first way.

By the time I got down to the bottom of the limestone, Dreizig had his eyes to the ground and was scouting hard for something. "The HK-211 is gone," he said, not looking up. "Your rifle is over there." My eyes followed to where his finger was pointing, and sure enough, there was my Dad's old single-shot Stevens .22, neatly cut in half, right through the action, where the steel is thickest. Dreizig chuckled. "You definitely do not want an HK-211 to catch you with its pincers."

I didn't appreciate the joke. Dreizig glanced up and took a quick sweep of the valley, then moved downslope a few paces and went back to studying the ground.

I picked up the halves of my Dad's Stevens, looked at them awhile, and fought back a kind of choked-up feeling. Mom gave me that beat-up old falling-block rifle on my tenth birthday, 'cause that's when she said Dad had always intended for me to have it. Because that's when he got it, from Grandpa, who got it from his dad on his tenth birthday. Four generations of Olafsons had make squirrels miserable with that old rifle...

I dropped the pieces on the ground, kicked a little dirt over them, and scrabbled down the slope to join Dreizig. "What—" My voice was barely a squeaky wheeze.

Dreizig unhooked a canteen from his belt and handed it to me. A gulp of cold water helped my voice some. I splashed more water in my burning eyes.

"What—" I had to rub my eyes again. "What are we looking for, anyway?"

"More tracks like these," Dreizig said quietly, pointing to a deep, round, hole in the dry leaves and dusty dirt. "The HK-211 has two basic operational modes. In defensive mode it sits tight, tracks everything that comes within its alert radius, and attacks only if something crosses over its reaction perimeter." Dreizig straightened up, took the canteen from me, and took a good long swig.

"In assault mode," he went on, "it basically just keeps going in the direction it's been pointed, and deviates only for natural obstacles and soft targets of opportunity." He took one more drink from the canteen, capped it, and hung it on his belt. He looked straight at me. "Soft targets means people."

He turned, took another sweeping look around, then raised his arm and pointed down into the valley. "If we're lucky," he said at last, "it's gone into defensive mode, and is hiding down in that swamp somewhere, waiting for us to come in range." I had to ask.

"And if we're unlucky?"

"It's already halfway to town."

...to be concluded...