The Climbers


Jarhead fumbles with another set of leather collars. Electrodes puncture the straps to connect skin to disabling current. On Allison’s worktable another pair sit complete.

He smiles and stumbles over to the medical bay. His five patients remain comatose, their minds lost to the maelstrom. Waters stands there ready, his face slack.

“Water’s get me some rags,” Jarhead orders as he feels another warm trickle down his neck.

The boy moves mechanically to the supply cabinet as Jarhead dabs at the blood oozing from his ear. When the child returns he orders him into a makeshift brain scanner.

Jarhead reads the zig zagging green line showing the operation of Water’s brain. Some part of him appears lost. Jahread glances to the coma patients.

“Probably where they went,” he mutters.He peels the white rag from the side of his head. Brilliant red blood stains it. “I need to fix myself first though.”

The inventor grabs some magnets and wires and snags a pair of big saline bags as well. Re-aligning his brain will take a few days.

As he finishes the device, the sound of two women arguing emerges from the workshop door.

Allison raises her voice higher than he’s ever heard it. “I’ve got to talk to him first!”

A moment later the door clangs open and Fire and Allison push their way in.

“Can I help you ladies?” he asks.

“Yes-” Allison starts.

Fire cuts her off. “Alright I’ve got the money. I need to know where Adam is.”

Jarhead searches his mind. “Okay. Give me a few minutes.”

As he turns to Allison, she yells, “Jarhead! What happened to Waters? What happened in this room? What did you do my brother?”

“Personally I think it’s a victory that he is not comatose,” he says. “His mind, well it’s kind of what happened to them.”

She turns her gaze from the coma patients. “Are you going to fix this?”

“Yeah!” he says. “I mean I’m going to do my best. I’ll fix them and him all at the same time. Would you prefer I screw with them first so I can do Waters right or would you prefer I fix Waters first without any test subjects?”

“How could you ask me that?” she sputters. She looks away. Waters stands quietly in the corner. “I guess…just make my brother well again, whatever it takes.”


Fire looms near the tinkerer. Jarhead digs into his workshop for the Tesla Sphere. “Okay let’s see what I can find.”

He tunes the dials on the device to align with Fire’s mental wavelength. Quickly he scans the frequencies for someone that aligns with her, this Adam who she shares a tie with. A green glow envelops him. Someone resonates nearby. Someone in Miami. Thoughts, alien memories bubble up in Jarhead’s mind. The presence is on the ship. He recalls a turnip farm. Blood and fire fill the night. He sees murders, feels the shock of combat. Adam is on the Big Ship. He feels flames, exit wounds, the feel of metal sliding into flesh. A vision of an alligator lunging for his face almost makes him stop. Adam is Gator!

At the same moment Jarhead realizes something else. Gator is Fire’s father. And she really hates him.

“Give me a few moments to figure out what I just saw,” he tells her, powering the sphere down, “and then I’ll let you know. Would you mind getting Gator in here first? I need to talk to him about something.”

“I’m not going to talk to that dictator,” she says.

“Well I need to let him know I need some security here,” he says.

“Why don’t you send one of your flunkies?”

Jarhead turns to one of the muscle hanging by the entrance. ”Flunky, go get Gator for me!”

“Okay boss!” theger minion says before jogging outside.

Gator settles into the worn leather chair on the bridge. Red check marks cover the papers littering the desk in front him. So many infected, so much to patch up.

The door bangs open and a man with half shaven head enters.

Jarhead needs to talk to you,” the Flunky says. “Uh Sir.”

Gator eyes the young man as the youth rubs the tattooed part of his scalp. “Well Jarhead can come to me.”

Flunky looks at his feet. “Um, alright. I think he wanted you to come to him. I mean every other time he’s come here, so I figure if he sent me, then he meant for you to come to him. I think. I’m confused now.”

The man behind the desk sighs and cracks his neck. “That’s not really how this works. What does he need?”

“He didn’t say, he just said he needed to talk to you. He was doing some business with that Militia lady.“

Gator pinches the bridge of his nose. “I don’t have time for this. If he needs to come talk to me, he can come to me.”

“Alright,” the young man says as he shuffles out. “I’ll go tell him.”

November wakes up with a start.

The nightmare fades like a sour cotton candy. Blood mixing with rotten turnips. Fires and someone shouting. A man who stood like Gator but with a face marked only by worry. He was standing over a child, his child, who was somehow also Fire. That didn’t make much sense, she thinks to herself.

A mighty first raps at her tent flap. Tossing on a coat, she slides it open.Lafferty towers outside.

“Hey Lafferty what’s up?” she asks, shielding her eyes from the setting sun.

“We’ve got deserters,” he says struggling with the word. “I guess. I don’t know how tight a ship you want to run.”


“The Kite family. They all up and left last night.”

November frowns. “That wasn’t nice of them. Where did they go?”

“I asked around,” the giant says. “You know that big crowd that’s gathering for that woman Violet

November strokes her chin. “They were extra hands but they were also extra mouths.”

“I figured you would want to know.”

“Thanks, I might have a word with them. They could be polite about it,” she tells him.

Lafferty rests a hand on an axe handle. “I can take care of it if you want.”

“Eh, I guess. I’d like to know if someone scared them off or something.”

He nods, the light bulbs hanging from his wide straw hat clinking together like bells. “Okay, I’ll drag one of them back and find out what the story is.“

“Be nice about it.”

As Lafferty heads off, she considers the dreams of the past week. She can feel the strange static even now, the mixture of confusion, pain, pleasure, and chocolate at the same time. Others felt this, others touched by the backwash of the God Smiter, others who want to feel it again.

None of those who were subjected to the machine’s fury had tipped their hand yet. Except Memo. The strange girl never leaves the workshop, spending all her time there. November recalls that others, even Tern, visit the workplace from time to time, perhaps to plan with her.

November gets dressed and heads down.

Violet surveys the fields of tents on the north end of the Big Ship. Over seventy souls from Militia soldiers to Music Bowl refugees had pledged to follow her vision. Her Republicans were stretched thin supplying this crowd. She hefted a heavy bag of barter and headed for the market.

A few hours later, she pulls a trolley stacked with supplies back to camp. She finds a family blocking her path.

The matriarch, Bes Kite, extends a hand. “You know we could help you with that. You look like you spent good money on the supplies but we’ve got some skills in decontamination.”

Violet shakes her hand and searches the broad woman’s face.

“Yeah we could make that nice and pure,” Bes adds. “No potential radiation hazards. For a couple barter perhaps?”

Violet considers a counter offer before looking past the Kites. “Who’s that?” she asks.

A massive man strides up behind them. Light bulbs hang from the brim of his straw hat. “Alright one of you is coming with me,” he booms.

Violet steps around them. “Is there a problem?”

Lafferty looks down at the rough woman. “Yeah these are deserters. I’m taking one of them back to answer to November.”

“It’s not like they signed a contract,” she tells him.

“I’m bringing one back because they need to learn their manners,” he says grabbing a young woman with a peg leg.

Violet puts her hand on the butt of her shotgun. “I don’t stand for that kind of man handling.”

Lafferty stops moving and stares at her and the gun. She continues, “look here, this is not how civilized people behave. If November wants to talk to them she has every right to come and talk to them herself. But I’m not going to tolerate you kidnapping somebody.”

The giant drops the girl. “Fine,” he says flatly. “I’ll let her know. Be seeing ya.”

Bes pulls her daughter to her feet and turns to Violet. “Thank you for that. That was a bit tense there. Maybe I can knock that treatment down a bit. We can take care of it for a barter. I do have to feed the family you know.”

“Much obliged,” Violet says.

Flunky runs back into the workshop. “Boss! Uh, unfortunately Gator said if you want to talk to him, you have to go talk to him. I couldn’t convince him to come down here.”

As November walks in Jarhead loudly says, “So he doesn’t want to know that his daughter is standing right here!”

She glances at Fire. The young woman mouth drops open. Slowly she shakes her head.

“Did you know?” November asks.

“That can’t be,” Fire says, her voice rising with each syllable. “That bastard!”

“Wait, what are you going to do?”

Fire clenches her hands. “That man has failed me my entire life. And now he has failed this holding.”

“How so?” November says.

“We came to bring civilization and democracy!”

“Well you did, yes. I think the first step was taking down White, which he did.”

“And now he’s just replaced him.”

November takes a different tack. “Have you talked to him about it? It seems like he would listen to you.”

”He think he would listen?!” Fire says. “You really think he would listen!”

“He’s always listened to me.”

“I’m not an orator like Violet and I know she’s talk to him,” the armored woman explains. “And if he’s not going to listen to her, the woman who hired him, then the only thing he’s going to listen to is cased in brass.”

Fire draws a massive pistol.

November holds up her hands. “Wait, wait. You know he’s surrounded by a whole bunch of guards? And he’s not a stranger to sniping himself. You are not going to do your cause any good going out in a blaze of gunfire. It’s really not going to work if you can’t get him alone.”

November leans in slightly. “But I can.”

Fire stops moving to the door. “Alright, if we do that, then we do that. Where are we going to set this up?”

“You know what? I just realized that they can optimize their reactor if they extract several of the control rods and use some centrifuges to refine the old fuel rods.” Jarhead’s head swivels rapidly in her direction. “I can show him what I mean and you could set up there. I probably can’t get him there until four hours from now though.”

Fire smiles. “I’ll be there.”

November lets Fire leave first, pausing at a piece of machinery in the workshop. “Oh that would actually work better here,” she says moving a wire.

Jarhead hurries over. “Don’t touch that.” He notices the power output increase. “Wait! What the hell did you just touch and why?”

November just smiles. Then she recalls her original reason for being here.

As jarhead puzzles over the “repair”, November makes a beeline for the now defunct God-Smiter. Memo crouches near it polishing part of the machine.

As the dancer moves in the girl looks up and freezes.

”I know what you are up to,” November says.

”What?” the pale girl says. “Hi November.”

“Hi. What have you got to say for yourself?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she stammers, letting her long dark hair fall over her face.

November smiles. “You know. All those great feelings flooding in. I know what that’s like.”

Memo’s eyes search around and she whispers, “Did you feel it too?”

“We were all in this room weren’t we?”

“Not everyone had the same reaction.”

November decides to fish for more information. “Yeah but everyone can, everyone has the capacity and everyone should right?”

“Yeah,” the child says.

“In some ways, it even makes it feel better when you can share.”

Memo smiles. “Yes, it feels so nice. We are trying to find people who would be interested. I think Jarhead would enjoy it.”

“Yes but he gets his pleasures from other places.”

“But it’s so nice.” Her slender fingers stroke the machine. “Everyone should get a chance to feel it.”

November focuses on the machine. The odor of scorched metal tickles her nose. In the background some tool whirs. She puts her hand to its cold dead surface. The God-Smiter remains dormant, dead since the battle with the gods. Without the Tesla sphere, it can’t hurt anyone outside this room. The memory of the blue back wash surfaces. It could still expose those nearby to the raw maelstrom. At some point Memo and her fellow addicts will try to start it again.

November turns to Memo. “Hey if you ever going to do again, let me know.”

Then she walks over to Jarhead, catching him out in the hall as he moves the last of his equipment into a side room. “Hey, Jarhead, what are you doing?”

“What now!” he says, his hand on the locking mechanism.

She steps back. “Oh gee, I’m sorry.”

“Can’t you see I’m bleeding from my ears!” he says pointing.

“You should do something about that.”

“I’m trying. I’m working on it.”

“So you are going to treat yourself in isolation and leave the whole rest of the workshop open to other people?“ she says glancing down the hall.

Jarhead narrows his eyes. “Why? What do you know?”

“Well you know that creepy kid you found?” She nods back through the open door. Memo strokes the machine mouthing her pleasure. “Haven’t you noticed that she’s acting even more creepy than usual?”

“Everyone’s acting more creepy.”

“Well I’ve been having dreams about her and other people. They all became addicted to opening their brains to the maelstrom through that machine. I’m not exactly sure if it’s going to affect the world but it’s definitely going to fuck them over. And they are definitely going to power that thing up once you go under. I don’t know what security you have in place but I don’t it’s good for the rest of them. I’m a live and let live kind of girl but it is your stuff and I hate to see good people go to waste.”

Memo glances over at the pair.

Jarhead tells November he’ll take care of it. Over the next few hours he sends all of his ‘employees’ on menial tasks. After some protests he’s finally left alone. He quickly rigs up an electronic lock, disables the God-Smiter, and makes sure his coma patients won’t need food for a few days. Satisfied, he locks up and heads down the hall.

Gator looks out over the bustling market, one hand propping up his chin.

Morgana knocks on the side of the bridge doorway. In one hand she holds a crude slate. “Looks good boss. I know you want to rest, but we’ve got the Big Ship cleaned out and under control.”

“Oh good,” Gator says letting his hand drop to the desk.

The plain woman tightens her jaw. “Well not entirely great. There’s a little issue.”

“Spit it out.”

“Maybe it will better for your leadership in the long run,” she says quickly. “You heard Violet’s speech for the Militia? They are moving on, which is good because you don’t need a lot of armed folks running around.“


She tries to keep her eyes on Gator. “But a few of the men and some of the citizenry are joining her. I don’t think there is anyone in the citizenry you care about and it is mostly low end people in your forces. I think you’ll be able to make them up easily.”

“Okay,” he says slowly.

“So just a few people. But I, uh, respect you. I think it’s time for me to strike out on my own. So,” she gulps. “I think that Wire will make a great second in command for you. He’s looking to settle down, he’s got great experience, I’ve had him overseeing people for quite a while now. I think he’ll make a great lieutenant for you.”

“What do you mean on your own?” he asks.

“I think there are opportunities to be had at this new holding, Things I can’t do here. I think you understand.”

He leans back in his chair. “I get it. Are you going to be close?”

“Yes the place Violet’s leading us to is a half day’s drive away,” she says breathing more easily.

“So you going to be working for Violet?”

“Nobody is working for Violet,” she says. “She’s just going to lead us there and then we will organize.”

“Really? Cause it seems everyone there is working for Violet.”

She smiles. “I think you’ll agree with me that she’s not the leader type.”

“But somehow people still follow her around,” he muses.

She shakes her head. “I think I heard this conversation before when you talked to Violet. There’s not much more to say. I’ll be seeing ya.”

“Alright. Good luck out there.”

“Good luck to you,” she says stepping back to the entrance.

“Hope it doesn’t descend into chaos,” he calls after her.

Morgana nods and steps out. A moment later Wire steps into the room holding a stack of papers.

“Hey Boss!” he says.

Gator leans forward. “Hey I just spoke to Morgana.”

Wire scans the wall and furniture for signs of damage. “Yeah, how did that go?”

“Not bad.”

The bushy bearded man sighs.

”Hopefully she can make it out there,” Gator says.

“Okay boss what’s the deal of the day?”

Gator half turns to the window. “Keep it up, Make sure things are still running here. I’ll make an announcement that you are second in command.”

“Alright,” Wire looks over his papers. “I’ve got a list of all the things that need doing. There’s quite a bit.”

“At least we are mostly stable now. I’ve got some extra barter so I think we can upgrade those machine guns.”

Wire smiles broadly. “Then we don’t have to worry about anyone coming after us. Do you want me to get Jarhead

Gator looks around. “He sent somebody to talk to me a little while ago, He’ll come to me.”

“So let him come to us?”

Gator taps his chin. “Just let him know I’m ready to see him and I have a deal for him.”

Wire flips through the papers. “I’ll be swinging by there a little later. Alright boss, get some rest. You look a little bit tired.”

Gator rests his head on his hand and nods. “I need to sleep.”

“I know, I look forward to sleeping,” Wire says flipping through his notes, “next week.”

The tower looms over November as she heads across the top deck. A chiming like glass bells draws her attention behind her. Turning she spots Lafferty hurrying through the shanty town.

“Hi Lafferty, how did it go with the Kite family?” she calls to him.

The giant strides over. “ Violet wouldn‘t let me bring one of them back,“ he grumbles.

“They wanted to come back?”

“No they didn’t,” he states.

“I’m confused.”

“I was going to drag one of them back so we could talk to them about manners.”

“I see.”

“She shut me down,” he says grinding his teeth.

November frowns. “She doesn’t like see people giving orders unless it is her. Were you able to talk to them at all?“

He shakes his head, sending the lightbulbs hanging from his hat swinging wildly.

“I’ll have a word with them then,” she says. “I’ve got another fire to put out now. Have you managed to touch base with everyone else to make sure they are still on board?”

“Yeah, they are.”

“And can you make sure Tern doesn’t head down to Jarhead’s workshop at any point?”

“Alright I’ll keep an eye on her.”

“She’s been acting a little weird,” she warns him.

Violet joins the growing delegation on the port side of the Big Ship. In addition to Boo and AOL, Wisher and Morgana make an appearance.

Fire tromps in as Boo starts. “I called you all here because we have an opportunity. Those slavers, the ones from the theater we want to claim for our new holding? They are here.”

“Here?” Violet asks.

“Over in the market, right now,” he explains. “There are six of them, not including the slaves. If we want to avoid any trouble, we could stage an ambush once they leave here. What do you think?”

“We should have a vote on it,” AOL says.

A murmur of agreement moves through the group.

“Well what are our other options?” Wisher says. “Maybe we can talk these guys into moving on or joining up?”

Violet speaks up. “The issue I have with that is…slavers. The slaves are not in a position to make a choice.”

Fire nods grimly. “We should bust them up now. If the slaves want to join us once they are free, that’s great. If they want to go their own way, that’s their choice. But I don’t think we should give the slavers a chance to escape.”

Violet looks over the group. ”We need to consider that this attempt to take the slaver’s hideout is our issue. We don’t want to involve anyone on the Big Ship. We should stage an ambush a ways from the ship. That way if anything gets complicated for us, it won’t get complicated for them.”

Boo nods. “Let’s vote,” the older man says. “Who wants to ambush them once they leave the ship? Opposed?”

Wisher votes against it and AOL abstains. Everyone else votes for the ambush on Violet’s terms.

“We will not tolerate slavery in our new holding,” Violet adds.

As the group rallies to divide up the task, Fire turns to Violet. “I’m going to be a little bit busy. If they leave before tomorrow, I’ll catch up.”

As she walks off, Morgana begins picking out snipers. She turns to the others. “AOL, you’ve got the radio right? You stay on the ship and tell us when they leave. There’s a nice path six blocks up from shore that they will most likely take. We can set up snipers at a ruined office building there.”

Jarhead puts his tools away. Other than the soft breathing of his coma patients, the workshop stands silent. He looks one last time at the disabled God Smiter and heads out the door. He slams it shut and keys the electronic lock.

Stumbling up the hall, he turns into room prepared just for him. As he steps inside, a bushy bearded mercenary calls out. “Oh hey Jarhead! I wanted to talk to you real quick.”

“Argh,” Jarhead says slumping against the door.

Wire pauses. “Sorry you probably want to sleep or something. I guess you do that sometimes.”

“You think?”

“Well I don’t know,” he says flipping through his notes. “I’ve got some records here and they say you are almost always awake, but maybe they are wrong. So anyway Gator is interested in getting you to fix the big guns.”

”Can it wait?”

“Sure, sure. You can rest.”

Jarhead stands up straighter. “Good, are there any emergencies?”

“No we are good now, we can finally get to maintenance.”

Jarhead sighs.

“Are you okay?” Wire asks.

Jarhead just points to his ears. Lines of blood crawl down to his neck.

“You’ve got to get that looked at!” the mercenary exclaims.

Jarhead holds his tongue as his complexion darkens.

“You don’t look good man,” Wire says backing away. “Alright, you do what you need to do.”

Jarhead turns and stops. He calls back, “before I go, could you tell Gator that his daughter is somewhere on the ship?”

“Okay. He’s got a daughter?”

“Yeah, I wanted to tell him earlier but he was busy.”

“Alright, you rest.” Wire glances down the hall to the workshop. “I see you locked up everything, I guess you are going to rest for a bit. You crash, I envy you.”

“Yes, envy me and my bleeding ears and swelled brain,” Jarhead grumbles.

He pulls the door closed and locks it.

The sun slowly moves towards the horizon. Violet crouches in the ruined building with a dozen other men and women, waiting for word that the targets are on their way.

Violet lets her attention move outward, away from the street and to someplace else. She closes her eyes and sees the fog clad swamp. The maelstrom seems emptier without the dark presence of the gods, less tangible and suffocating.

Marshall smiles at her from a nearby tree. Her lost love’s hair is a little longer and a few wrinkles blemish his face. But his smile remains the same.

“I guess things must be better out there now,” he says. “And I guess in here too.”

“Yeah,” she says studying him.

“So Violet, how are things out there?” he asks walking closer to her.

“Okay in some ways and not so okay in others. We are going to try to make it happen though.”

He leans forward. “Really? Your dream?”

“Yes, there’s a place out there, it’s a slaver’s hideout right now, but I figure if we can clear it out-”

“You can make it your own little place of paradise,” he finishes looking into her eyes.

“I don’t know about paradise,” she says. “But we can make a stab at making it work.”

“That’s great.” He looks away. “I don’t know if it matters to you anymore but now that the gods are gone, those of us who are stuck here have been trying to figure out what comes next.”

“That was one of the reasons I came,” she explains. “Is there anything I can do?”

“I think we need to figure that out for ourselves here. But I heard White’s still out there though.”

“What?” she exclaims.

“I don’t know what you know about White. He’s sort of the bogey man here, part in the Maelstrom and part in your world. He got killed in your world, but he’s not dead here. Some people say he’s still active and he’s got some sort of deal with someone on your side. Somebody building him a body.”

Violet’s thoughts flash to the robotic skeleton in Jarhead’s workshop. “Why in the hell did he do that? Why would Jarhead want to bring him back? I may have to take that matter up with him.”

He shrugs. “Okay, I figured you’d want to know.”

“I appreciate it. Is there anything else?”

“Well nothing you can help with but things are changing over here,” he says. He turns and points into the mist. “We have been finding these and we don’t know what it means. Look through there.”

Violet looks forward as the mist parts. The earth and sky beyond are pitch black, illuminated only by green lines stretching to the horizon.

Someone knocks on the door to the bridge. Gator looks up from his desk. “Come in.”

November slips in. “Hey how are you doing?”

The scarred leader leans back in his chair. Behind him the sky darkens into a deep blue. “Doing okay. Things are calming down which is nice. It sounds like all the other players are getting ready to move along.”

November studies the cryptic hardholder. “I can see you are pretty busy so I won’t beat around the bush. There’s a threat against you but I don’t know how you want to deal with it.”

“What type of threat?” he says sitting up straight.

“To be blunt someone wants to kill you.”

His shoulders drop slightly. “I’ve had that before.”

“They were planning on coming straight here,” she explains, “but I talked them around to expect you by the reactor. Actually I had a really great idea for fixing it but now is not the time. Well not fixing it but if you could just realign…sorry sorry.”

Pushing the lore of the gods from her mind, she starts over. “The bigger point is apparently, and I don’t know how Jarhead figured this out, but apparently she’s your daughter. I didn’t know you had a daughter.”

He narrows his eyes but holds his tongue.

“She also believes you are her father,” she continues. “If I found that out I wouldn’t want to kill you.”

“Wait, back up,” he says. “So Jarhead told somebody I’m their father?”

She nods. “And then she said that you’d been screwing up her life this whole time.”

“So why are you here?”

“I was there when Jarhead told her. She started heading right for you so I had to delay her. I figured you should at least know what is going on. I didn’t want you to blow her away without knowing. Also we are friends.”

“Thank you, what do you intend to do about this?”

She throws her hands wide. “This is it. If you want, I can lead you to this ambush. I was hoping you could, with your superior strategy, capture her and then talk her down. I’m happy to facilitate that in any way I can.”

“So who is this?” he asks.


Gator’s mind kicks into high gear. It could be her. She’s the right age. She actually looks like him, at least how he did before the alligator bit off half his face. “November, would you mind giving a minute?”

November nods and turns to leave. Outside a voice booms, “No I need to talk to her now!”

The dancer slips back into the hall. Lafferty looms over a pair of guards. He relaxes the moment he spots her.

“What’s going on?” she asks.

“I was following Tern and they ganged up on me,” he says, removing his wide brimmed hat


Lafferty rubs the back of his head. “You know that scrawny little girl that Jarhead’s got? Also that freaky guy with the three slashes on his face. I didn’t see the third one but he hit like a girl, a girl with a lead pipe.”

“Are you okay?”

“Bruised up but yeah.”

“What were they doing?” she asks.

“I don’t know. It felt weird. Not right. I got away.” His hand wraps around one his axes. “One of them is wounded.”

November notes the drying blood on the axe blade. Then she turns to the giant himself. The smell of blood mixes with something else, a hint or perhaps a memory of ozone. Something like what the God-Smiter emitted. Weaker however and fading swiftly.

“I think I know what’s wrong with them,” she says. “They got affected by that machine Jarhead built. I think that’s what affected Tern too. Was Tern involved in this?”

“Yes, I was following her,” he explains. “She tried to get back into the workshop. The whole crew were there, messing with a lock or something.”

“OK I’ll take care of it. Do you think you can get some handcuffs for us?”

He puts his hat back on. “Might take a little jingle but I can get a hold of some.”

“You can take those leathers I have.”

He nods. “I can get a couple of pairs and maybe some rope.”

“As much as you can get, enough for all of them,” she says.

“Do you want the gang ready?”

“Yes,” she says after a moment.

“We’ll be back at your tent.” Then he takes off down the hall.

Gator holds his head trying to work how to fix this.

Deciding, he gets up and exit the room. As he heads down the hall, November trails after him.

“I need to talk to Jarhead he tells her.

“He might have some problems of his own,” she warns him. “A bunch of people, Memo, Shazah, Rox and Tern, they were affected by the machine. Not like the comatose guys. They are addicted to the maelstrom. I let him know about it but I don’t know what he did in response. He had figured something out to fix them but it would take time. Anyway a whole bunch of them tried to jump one of my guys. I’m readying my gang to tie them up but he said they were messing with some locks down by the workshop.”

He turns to her. “So Jarhead’s helping these people-”

“No. He knows how to help them but he hasn’t begun the treatment. Otherwise they wouldn’t be free. At least I don’t think his treatment involves them beating people with lead pipes.”

“So Memo is in a gang trying to hurt people?” he says disbelievingly.

“My guy, taking his own initiative, was following one of my girls who was affected when they jumped him,” she explains. “I was going to take care of this myself but they seem to be working in on Jarhead. So if that is where you are going you might want to be ready.”

Gator’s jaw tightens. “That’s enough of this crap. Gremlin, round up a team. We need a police force. We have some unrest we need to deal with.”

His men jump to attention as Gremlin begins organizing the squad. Gator follows them down to the armory where his man begins handing out weapons.

“Alright guys, only clubs!” Gremlin orders. “Hey put down the machine gun!”

Gator nods as a couple dozen men arm up. “Yes, clubs, stun guns, whatever we’ve got.”

Gremlin looks over. “Oh we got authorized for the stun guns.”

He turns to a tall woman in patched up kevlar. “The Tazer too.”

A huge man breaks open locker and pulls out two large steel devices. “Ooh,” Gremlin says, “some cattle prods! I think that’s fine. Is that allowed boss?”

“Yeah that’s cool,” Gator says, “just don’t hold it on for too long.”

“You heard him.”

Gator grabs a Tazer for himself.

Gremlin pulls some bulky items from a crate. “You want one of these plastic shield things? You can see through them.”

He nods and picks it up.

The radio crackles to life. AOL’s voice pushes through the static as Violet and the others lean in. “They are on their way. I think there’s something else going on around here. I saw Gator’s men moving around. They’ve got these clear plastic shields and stun guns. It looks like they are moving to bust heads on something. Just thought you should know.”

“Thanks,” Violet radios back as the others ready themselves for the ambush.

A half hour later they spot a half dozen men and women leading eight slaves down the crumbled asphalt. Violet scans the slavers: three men, two women and a child. Slowly she lines up a shot on one of the men.

The first volley drops two of the men instantly. The survivors fire back but the fighting ends before they get a good idea of where the shots are coming from. One woman lies face down in a pool of blood while the other cradles the final man in her arms. The child crouches behind them.

Violet hurries down with the others to investigate.

Boo gets to them first. He crouches by the man. “I don’t think this one is going to make it.”

He glances into the woman’s blank gaze. “This one is already gone,” he calls back.

“Noo!” the child cries.

Violet orders Boo to grab the kid. She crouches by the dying man to check his wounds. Both rounds passed through his gut and blood is pooling rapidly beneath him. She presses a rag to the wounds and calls Garber over. “Take him back to the Big Ship as fast as you can. Get him to Jarhead, he can save him.”

Gator’s posse fill the hallway to Jarhead’s workshop. A small LCD screen on the locked door displays a cartoon version of Jarhead repeating the words, “Ha-ha-ha please use the magic word.”

“Was this where they were Lafferty November asks.

The giant warrior nods, “They were messing with that thing.”

November scans the area. A trail of blood runs back down the hall. “Look they must have gone this way.”

Gator’s eyes seize on the one door in the hall that’s locked but shouldn’t be. As he reaches for the latch, he realizes that if Jarhead locked himself in he had a good reason. At best he’s drugged up. At worst he’s in a coma. He lets go of the latch, he needs Jarhead functional. He will have to wait for now.

Gator leads the men down into the ship, following the blood trail. In a dimly lit chamber two floors down, they find four people crouched around a fifth. Memo looks up and freezes, Rox and Shazah move to the exits only to find more men moving in from all directions. Surrounded they form a rough circle around their fallen member, Tern.

Blood oozes from a wound on Tern’s chest.

”Lafferty!” November says.

“They were coming at me from all directions,” he protests.

“I told you to look after her.”

“They got in my head!”

Gator moves closer. “Memo? Hey Memo.”

“Yeah,” she says slowly.

“I think you may be sick,” he says.

“I feel okay. But Tern’s really hurt. We tried to get into the workshop to patch her up but Jarhead locked it up.”

“Yeah,” he says thinking. “Alright, medic!”

November signals her people. Silently they surround the affected, handcuffs and rope at the ready.

As the medic looks over the wounded woman, Gator leans over Memo. ”Memo, we’ll take care of her but we’ll need to put you in a room until Jarhead gets up.”

“But we’re fine, we’re okay.” She shivers slightly holding her hands like she wants to reach out grab someone. “I feel great.”

He stands up. “We’re going to have to put you away for a bit.”


“You’ll be fine.” Slowly November and Gator’s people move in.

Memo and the others look around. Outmatched they allow themselves to be restrained.

“Put them in the brig," he orders. "Separately.”

As the men move the wounded and affected, Gator calls Wire over. ”I’m going to need somebody to walk into the Gap. They are going to be bait.”

Wire strokes his beard as Gator continues, “I’ll try to keep an eye out for him but let’s get him some real good armor. Actually let’s use my armor.”

As Gator strips out of custom made military gear, Wire pulls out his papers. “You know I’m looking over these notes. We’ve got a guy we can expend, he got lost in shuffle when we were dealing with White. We never handed him over to the Militia

Gator looks up. “We still have Road

“He’s in the brig.”

“Alright let’s use him.”

Wire moves closer. “I feel we should let him go if he survives. I mean he’s out but he can go someplace else.”

“Yeah I’ll let him know,” he says doffing the last of the gear. “I’ll try not to let him get killed.”

“OK he’ll be there.”

While Road stalks along the base of the Gap, Gator skirts along the ruined edge. Nearby another patrol moves conveniently close by in case things go south.

After several minutes of climbing and swinging from rusty beams, he spots Fire in a shattered starwell. Her dark hair and blackened armor blends into the shadows. He watches as she scans the area for him, her assault rifle ready and equipped with a grenade launcher.

Deftly he swings silently to a beam directly above her. His leather hands quietly find purchase in the crumbling concrete. He climbs up to the level above her and then slips down behind her.

In a single motion, he sweeps the rifle away from her. She delivers a powerful back kick that pushes him back an inch. He feels an odd swell of pride for a moment. She finishes her turn with a combat knife suddenly in her hand.

“Let’s talk,” he says holding the gun by the barrel in front of him. “I could have ended this differently.”

“I don’t know what we have to say.”

“I’ve heard that I’ve failed you,” he says, lowering the gun.

“You let us get captured,” she yells at him. “You never came. And then I find out you’re this freakin killing machine. And you took over this place? We were trying to establish democracy and you perverted the cause.”

“Perverted the cause?”

“You’ve got A.T. wrapped around your finger,” she says, shifting her stance.

“We just agree on some common ground,” he says. “Listen to me. I didn’t let you get caught. This is a shitty world that we live in. I looked for you for years. That’s how I got to be like I am now. I came looking for the people who took you.”

Fire lowers her blade. “They sold us two days after they hit our home. I don’t know where mom went. I was a slave,” she says blinking away a tear.

“Your mother is gone,” he says calmly. “I saw her in the Maelstrom.”

“I had to fight for my freedom. That’s why I joined the Militia. So I could end it. Slavery, all these tyrants, people controlling people.”

“Was the Militia any different?” he questions. “I thought they just wanted democracy.”

She meets his eyes. “Some of us were in it for more than just democracy.”

“I am no fan of slavery either and I don’t hold any here. And I never have.”

“But now you’re controlling people yourself,” she says.

“No, now I’m making a system that works. Getting people to honor what they say they are going to do. So it’s not just chaos. Just look at the people out there. You’ve seen them, I’d say they are considerably better off than before I came. This isn’t something I want to do, it’s something I need to do.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night,” she spits back.

Gator spreads his hands wide. “I’m just glad you’re alive. And I’m sorry you’ve taken a life similar to mine.”

“Well you said it was a terrible world we live in, I guess it is, it makes us terrible people.” She drops the knife on the ground. “Alright fine, I’m done here. I’ve got business to do, Violet needs me.”

As his daughter stalks away he calls out to her. “Just keep an eye on her.”

Fire never looks back.

In the coming months, Violet’s holding gets off to a good start. Swelled slightly by the slaves they freed, they convert the old movie house into a home. They elect a leader. They vote. A lot. Gator sends messages to Violet asking about his daughter. She mostly keeps “the dictator” informed. In her spare time she teaches ethics to a new generation.

Many miles away on crumbling highway, November builds her own holding. Her followers mingle with the hungry inhabitants of Willowtree. Together they farm the ocean and build new machines to ease their lives. In time she opens a school with courses in the culinary arts, electrical engineering, and exotic dancing.

Back on the Big Ship, Jarhead wakes up feeling refreshed and well rested, good for the first time in months. He finds his problems have evaporated while he slept.

As he enjoys some sunshine in the salty air, his head suddenly hurts. White’s voice rasps inside his skull. “I want my body now!”

The End

The God Smiter

Jarhead tightens the last bolt holding the Tesla sphere in place. Behind him Rox attaches the final leads while the rest of the gang keeps watch.

Violet props herself up in her gurney as she pours over some Golden Age document on her tablet. Her fingers manipulate the touch screen like cold sausages. She tries to shake the cobwebs from her head from Jarhead’s drugs. Distantly she notices a metallic banging.

Shazah looks over to Jarhead, his massive sword gun pointed at door.

Jarhead frowns and calls out, “Who is it?”

A woman’s voice barks, “I want to talk to Violet.”

“Not much of a name,” he says.

“It’s Fire! Let me in,” she says after a long pause.

Jarhead glances at Violet. She nods. The tinkerer says, “cool beans. Let her in. Be careful though.”

The powerful warrior unlatches the door. An armored teenager girl pushes past him toward Violet.

“What are you doing lying around here for?” she accuses the survivalist. “I figured you at least would have something to do around here?”

“There’s plenty to do, but we have time to do it,” Violet says calmly.

“What do you think about this mess here?” Fire says loudly.

“What Gator

“Yes, Gator! A.T. thinks Gator is a good guy but I know you at least wanted some sort of real change after White.”

Violet sighs. “Gator…he’s made up his mind. It seems like the people here seem to agree with him. The best way to make democracy work is to use people who are behind it. If we don’t, it won’t be long before somebody else, possibly worse, takes his place. My plan is to let them be. We are going to find somewhere else and make it work there.”

Fire eyes the weary woman before her. After a long moment she crashes down into the chair beside her. “Damn it,” she mutters. “The Militia is falling apart. Most of them seem to want to give up on restoring democracy.”

“It’s not too late,” Violet says, struggling through the haze in her head. “We just have to find the right way.”

“But we need people,” Fire says staring her in the eyes. “With A.T. running things the Militia is useless. Maybe if you talk to them, you can get their spirits back up. Then we could all work on this new place.”

Violet nods. “It won’t be easy but if we put our hearts into it I think we can. I’ll talk to them.”

The young woman leans back and stretches. “Alright. It’s just been frustrating. We put so much effort into this just to see it all fall apart.”

“It’s hard,” Violet says, studying her potential ally.

Jarhead comes up beside her.

Fire looks up. “So you’re some sort of wondermaker aren’t you?”

“Me? Well I’m not going to toot my own horn but yes,” he says smiling.

“I heard you have ways of seeing things,” Fire says with surprising gentleness.

“Yes. I see things. I see you right now,” he jokes. “Come on lady spit it out.”

“I mean you can find things in the Maelstrom,’ she says.

“I can sometimes. The Maelstrom is not easy to deal with. Why? What do you want?”

She looks away. “There’s somebody I’ve been looking for.”

“Who are you looking for?”

“A man,” she says turning back towards him, her eyes low. “His name is Adam.”

“Is he dead?” Jarhead asks. “Alive? Undead?”

“I don’t know. I want to find out.” Finally she looks him in the eye. “He failed me.”

“I can take a look but it will cost. Anything worthwhile in this world costs something.”

“How much?”

“I can do it for one barter but I can’t do it now. It will take a day or two.”

“I’ve been waiting a while,” she says getting up.

“Alright hommy?”

She looks at him oddly and leaves.

Gator shifts in his cracked leather chair. Around the round table, his key advisers and warriors share space with the latest crop of petitioners looking for something from the new government.

Currently an odorous pair of women occupied those chairs.

Joe’s Girl scratches her balding head. “Joe’s feeling really sick right now,” she explains.

Jessica pipes up. “He’s all really hot to the touch.”

“Have you checked his eyes?” he asks.

Jessica rubs her arms and glances at Joe’s Girl.

“He’s been looking off into space,” Joe’s Girl says. ”He’s really sick.”

“Has he gone to any healers?” the new leader asks.

“Well we don’t really have anyone,” she says. “People have been saying that the creepy guy you’ve got down in the old workshop can patch people. But we haven’t gone down there.”

“That would be Jarhead he explains as she claws at her mangy hair. “He could provide such services, you’d just have to make a deal with him.”

“We don’t really have anything. There hasn’t been time to do any scavenging yet. We don’t have anything to trade.”

“If you make a deal and honor that deal, I’m sure he’ll work something out with you.”

The pair nod to him. “Okay we’ll go talk to him.”

“Tell him I sent you and to treat you fairly,” he tells them as they rise. “He’s pretty good at that.”

Gator sips a glass of water as he waits for the next batch. Suddenly heavy gunfire rattles the room as the main guns rumble to life.

“Secure the deck!” he shouts to his advisers as he heads for his sniper’s perch.

November and Tern work on the motorcycle. November looks east. The dancer shields her eyes from the blazing sun overhead. The Big Ship looms in the distance, towering over the shoreline ruins.

Tern tightens another nut. “It will be good to get back on the road. I can’t stand being in one place this long.”

November nods and asks her about her travels. Moments stretch out they quietly exchange stories. Slowly Tern falls under her spell.

November stops mid sentence. Only the sound of rolling waves fills the air. That and the scattered footfalls of a couple dozen people moving through ruins around them.

Her sharps eyes spot one, a blank faced woman, as she runs past. The runner moves without fear or hesitation, cuts covering her legs where her clothes have worn away.

“Climbers,” she whispers. “It is an attack.”

As Tern looks around, November says, “stick with me, we need to get to cover before Gator’s men start shooting. Jonker should be a block over in that ruined hardware store.”

The roar of machine gun fills their ears.

Gator scans the bay from his perch. As he loads a round into his sniper rifle, he notes the scores of people slogging through the waist deep water.

The machine gun fire churns the bay, slicing down the blindly racing figures. The survivors don’t react to the carnage. Searching the crowd with his scope, he picks out women and children among the climber swarm. He scans the ruins for reinforcements finding only empty shells. He focuses on a small knot of former warriors in the crowd.

He grabs a voice tube, “focus fire on unarmored! They are all infected, we need to wipe them out.”

Taking aim he begins to fire on the main threat as his men mop the floor with the softer targets. The churning water obscures his quarry, but his gun’s mighty blasts knock some sense into them. The fighters scatter, trading progress for survival.

Jarhead looks up as the blasts of the guns thrum through the hull. “Good to know the guns work. I betcha he wish we upgraded them.”

“What’s going on?” Violet says from her gurney.

Shazah see what is happening,” the tinkerer orders.

The muscular warrior hurries out.

A few stray rounds fly overhead as Tern weaves her motorcycle through the ruins. She pulls up short as a whistling noise shrieks past them. A white blur strikes the building where Jonkers was working, exploding in a spray of rebar and concrete.

Smoke and fire rises from the structure as November and Tern picks themselves off the broken asphalt. The dancer rubs the spot where a chunk the size of a child’s head bounced off her breastplate.

The guardians of the Big Ship carve the attackers into smaller and smaller knots. The machine guns wind down as the defenders must fire straight down at the encroaching swarm.

As the climbers pull themselves up the rusted hull of the ship, Gator looks out past the battle into the new wetlands of Miami. His eyes caught subtle hints among the attackers: a syringe sticking from a neck, icons fashioned from old plastic cups around another. These people came from 711. White infected them and sent them against the Autodoc.

Then he looks beyond. Step pyramids rise from a jungle that appears beyond these people. He pushes past the ornate stones and blood soaked stairs. Past the illusion. He sees the gods for what they truly are: withered old men and woman, their minds trapped in the maelstrom so long that they’ve turned to goo. Minds filled with hate, feeding on each other until nothing is left but sickening mush. A mush that hates and hungers.

November scrambles to her feet. The building shudders as the fire licks at it. “ Tern, head for the back! I’ll catch up to you!”

As her second in command tears off, November turns, pulling her shotgun. She blasts the rotten wood of a nearby telephone pole. The thirty foot beam crashes down, smashing a hole in the burning structure.

Racing across the beam, she jumps through the flames and into the smoke filled interior. Jonker coughs and pulls himself off the floor.

“We’ve got to get out of here!” she shouts. “There’s a weak point in the wall. We’ve got to go through it.”

As flaming debris drops down, the crazy haired man protests. “It’s going to wreck the front end. I just fixed this thing.”

The flames begin to spread through the building. “It’s going to be metal slag if we wait!”

“We are going to fix this thing before we leave Miami he says adjusting his goggles as he gets into the armored car. “I’m not leaving my ride.”

“Of course,” she says sliding into shotgun.

Jonker punches it. The car crashes through the wall with the sound of flexing metal and popping headlights. The windshield becomes a mosaic of star patterns but November makes out blue sky as they race from the inferno, over the grill and into the streets.

Shazah races back into the workshop. He slams the door close and bolts it shut. “We’ve got crazy people climbing up the side of the ship!” the tattooed warrior shouts.

“That’s not good,” Jarhead mutters. “I wish he’d let me upgrade those guns.”

The tinker heads for the door. “As much fun as it would be to just stick here, it’s going to a whole lot harder to get supplies if everyone is dead outside. We’ve got to go out there.”

“I’ll go with you,” Violet says pulling herself from her gurney.

“Let’s go!” Jarhead shouts to the others.

“Hell no!” Shazah says. “I’m not going out there. I’m not getting covered in spores.”

The other warriors looks to each other and nod.

“Yeah boss that’s a bad place out there,” says one with a chromed football helmet.

Jarhead’s shoulder sag. “What? Some gang you are.”

“We should seal the air vents too,” Shazah says. “Just in case.”

“That’s not actually a bad idea,” Jarhead says. Then Rox lights the welding torch. “No, not permanently!”

The crowd ignore him and immediately go to work on sealing the place up.

Violet shrugs and grabs her gun. “Let’s go.”

Jarhead tosses her a homemade gas mask. “It’s dangerous to go out alone, take this.”

He turns to the gang as they reach the door. “You guys! I don’t like you as much anymore. Waters, Memo. Don’t let anyone touch anything they shouldn’t touch.”

The kids glance at each other. “Alright.”

“If they make trouble use the detonator.”

Water tries not to search around. “Okay.”

The tinkerer points to the big red button on the metal endoskeleton. Everyone’s eyes go wide. He closes the door behind him with a solid clang.

Gator snaps out of his reverie. As the waters of the bay calm, he sights the armored climbers, picking them off in a rapid succession of shots. 30 seconds later only corpses fill the bay. Somewhere down below a lone survivor bangs on the rusted hull.

He glances to the deck. Three climbers limp aboard. Fifty or sixty men surround them. The hail of gunfire is deafening and swift.

Something gnaws at him. Some clue he should have picked up on. Like an itch he can’t scratch. Then he spots him. Joe.

“There’s one more armored guy at the bottom,” he shouts down. “Keep him off! I’m going after Joe.”

He jumps on a zip line and sails over the market to the far end of the deck. As he slides faster and faster he spots Jarhead and Violet coming up. Around the corner from them Joe and his girls move in with weapons drawn.

He lands in a crouch between the two groups.

Violet’s eyes dart behind him where long shadows emerge from beyond the corner. The large one lines up with the rifle butt clearing the edge. She ducks down as a blank faced man rounds it, rifle at the ready. A mangy woman with a pistol flanks him followed by an even more ragged one with a knife.

Gator doesn’t hesitate. His MP5 tears through all three as he steps between them and their quarry.

Their shots ring off his armor, shots meant for the bewildered inventor. Gator checks their bleeding corpses and glances over to his men as they clean up.

“Hey is that one moving?” Wire shouts from the edge of the Big Ship.

“Let me see,” Morgana says looking down her rifle barrel. A single shot rings out.

“How about that one there? He looks like he’s sloshing around,” Wire says moments before another shot is heard.

“I guess we weren’t needed after all,” Violet remarks.

”My work here is done,” Jarhead says heading back down below.

“Not done yet,” Gator says stopping him. “The gods are sending everything they’ve got at us. I hope you’re ready.”

“I need a certain person’s assistance,” he hints.

“I guess the cat’s out of the bag anyway,” Gator says surveying the damage. “I’ll get her. You stay in your workshop and hole up.”

“Aye-aye,” he replies with a mock salute.

Gator looks at Violet. “Can you keep an eye on him? It’s important.”

“Fine by me,” she says.

The pair turn and head for the stairs. Before they get far however a familiar voice shouts out to them.

“Hey Violet!” Boo says rushing up to them along with several other members of the Republicans. “We’ve been looking for you, trying to catch up.” He catches his breath. “You look a lot better.”

“Better than I was,” she says.

“So what’s the plan?” the older man says searching her face. “Things don’t seem to have worked out like we hoped.”

“Seems that way,” she says. “Short term make sure nothing happens to Jarhead. Long term I’ll fill you in when we get where we are going.”

As she moves to leave, he says, “well it would be nice to know what the plan is now.”

“Alright, the short version is that we are going to found new holding and make this work there. But you heard the gun shots upstairs.”

He scratches his chin. “Yeah a lot of climber problems here.”

“They’ve held them off for now but the climbers will keep coming until Jarhead’s work is done. We need someone to aim it into the Maelstrom. It should end that threat.”

A murmur moves through the men and women around her.

“How can we help?” Boo asks.

“At this point we need to make sure Jarhead’s work isn’t compromised. We need people to shore up defenses too. Half of you stay up top and the rest follow me.”

AOL leads the men upstairs while Starbuck trails behind Boo and his son as they follow Violet to the workshop.

“We’ve got to make sure nothing happens to this device,” she says as they move through the dimly lit corridors.

“Sounds important,” he says scratching at his arm.

”Where did Lily get off to?” Starbucks asks. “Wasn’t she with you.”

“She left,” she says.

“She left?” he says.

Gator surveys the clean up. Crudehammer looks over the side and drops a single grenade. A boom and blood filled spray later, he gives his boss a thumbs up.

“Burn everything,” Gator orders as a pair of men equipped with flamethrowers arrive. He then directs his staff to conscript every able bodied man they can, especially those who have been causing trouble lately.

Then he turns to Morgana. “I’ve got a job for you. November should be on shore. Go and retrieve her. Be quick, it’s important. I’ll be in the workshop below.”

She nods and immediately heads out.

A speed boat slices through the water towards the beach, reaching it a few moments before Jonker’s car pulls to a halt.

Morgana hops off as November steps out of the vehicle.

“The boss wants to talk to you,” she says. Behind her, Wire carefully clambers off the boat, a heavy tank sloshing on his back.

“Did he say what about?” November asks.

“I imagine it has to do with the climber attack.”

“Yeah saw that.”

“He said to take you to Jarhead Then she turns to Wire and another soldier. “You two clean the beach.”

Wire ignites his flame thrower and begins to torch the corpses floating onto shore. Then November, Morgana, and the others speed back to the holding.

Jarhead pushes on the workshop door. It doesn’t budge. “Open up!” he shouts pounding on it.

“Who’s there?” a muffled voice says.

“Me? It’s my workshop.”

“I think it’s Jarhead,” a voice says.

“Jarhead?” says someone else. “How can we be sure? He could have the climbers.”

Violet steps up as the murmur of voices grows in volume. “I can verify for all of you that he does not have the climbers nor do the rest of us!”

The door clangs open. Jarhead stomps inside. His protectors keep their distance as he checks his tools and gear. He glares at everyone as they hold their breath in the stale air. Cautiously Shazah locks the door behind them.

The techno-savages eye Violet’s Republicans. They look back unsteadily.

Someone bangs on the door.

“Open up!” Gator shouts from outside.

“Who locked the door again?” Jarhead says testily. “Open it up.”

Shazah looks over his sword gun still pointed at this entrance. “What about the climbers?”

“They’re dead.”

“Okay but give me a mask," the barbarian demands.

Jarhead throws over his and the warrior opens up the door.

Gator strides in flanked by one of his men. “Is there anything else we need?”

“Hold on one second,” Jarhead says as he turns to his guards. "If you guys are not going to listen to me, you can just get the fuck out. I’ll give you masks.”

Rox steps closer to him, her hands raised up slightly. “No, it’s just we are really keyed up. The climbers are really scary things and we just want to make sure you’re safe.”

His shoulders relax slightly. "Instead of saying ‘no we are not going to do it’, try saying let’s do it this way so it’s safer. Like ‘here Jarhead remember to take your armor’.”

Rox nods and then steps a little closer. “Okay. Jarhead why are Violet’s followers all so scratchy?”

The lights go out.

Gator quickly dons his night vision goggles as everyone else stumbles around in the pitch blackness.

Violet thinks back on who seemed itchy. Around her everyone voices their surprise and concern. “Jarhead, How many car batteries do you have?”

“Uh two or three,” he says feeling for a flashlight.

“You know that thing Memo rigged? We need three of them now. ASAP. Gator, do you have another room that’s not ventilated?”

Gator finishes scanning the room. A couple of the Republicans scratch their arms but no one looks ready to cause trouble right now. His mind goes the gap, a chasm in the ship that leads to the reactor. They probably cut the lines there.

The gap rips through several decks of the ship. The only ways down are a crumbling staircase down or rappelling straight down. Unless one wanted to spend an hour snaking through blackened corridors._ The most direct route_, he decides.

Boo, Garber. Out of here,” he barks.

“What’s going on?” Boo says.

“I think you know what’s going on.”

“Listen to him,” Violet says. “You are showing signs. We don’t want to take any risks.”

Gator turns to his man. “ Gremlin, we need to get these guys locked up.and quarantined. Sorry Boo and Garber you guys are infected.”

Garber stammers, “maybe we are infected but you don’t need to lock us up someplace.”

“Yeah we do. Either that or there is one other option.”

Cowed Boo and his son let Gremlin leads them outside to another room and seals them in.

The speed boat shoots across bay, skidding to a halt in the jury rigged harbor at the base of the Big Ship. Morgana helps them out and leads them to the elevator.

Then the electric lights go out.

”What the hell?” Morgana says looking up the shaft at the distant square of light.

“Did you guys just lose all power?” November asks.

“Yeah. Jack! Jill!” she shouts, rousing a pair of muscular twins. “You are on manual.”

Tern and November quickly grab a pair of large handheld flashlights from the boat and jump on the lift as the twins slowly pull it up.

“Where’s your main power?” November asks, checking that the lights work.

“The reactor? It’s down below by the south end.”

“Let’s go.”

Five feet below them, Jonker calls out. “I’ll stay here.”

Jarhead connects a pair of wires and a string of christmas lights illuminate the workshop.

Gator peels off his goggles. “We’ve got a couple options. I could go to the reactor or Violet you could go.”

“I’ll go,” she says, shaking off the last of Jarhead’s drugs.

“Gremlin knows the layout a little bit so take him with you,” he adds.

”What should I do?” Starbucks asks, looking around the room. “Should I stay here or come with you?”

”Come with me,” she says leading the pair of men off toward the far end of the ship.

Morgana leads the others across the deck of the ship. Around them, confused citizens of the Big Ship complain about the loss of power.

“Tell me the lay of the land,” November says.

“There’s a gap, a chasm that cuts through the bowels of the ship,” Morgana says grabbing a few men to follow them. “You can drop straight down to the reactor level. Next to the gap and hanging into it in places is a metal staircase. Those are the fastest ways down. Otherwise you need to take the back way through miles of pitch black tunnels.”

“Sounds like a good ambush spot,” the dancer says.

“I had thought of that.” Morgana grabs another armored figure to join their growing force.

“Who do you have who is a good shot?”

Morgana points to pair of tall men following them as they near the end of the market. “Pin and Tail are both good shots. And myself.”

As they head down some stairs into the ship, November doffs her coat and strips to her chain mail bikini. “So here’s the plan. You guys watch the top and keep them pinned down. They are not fighters, so they shouldn’t be armored or well equipped. I’ll lead the rest of the men down the stairs to take them out.”

Violet leads Gremlin and Starbuck out of the darkness.

“Any of you guys good snipers?” November asks as they approach.

“I can do very well in a pinch,” Violet says.

November explains, “OK, some of us are drawing fire up here while the rest of us make our way down the staircase.”

Violet interrupts. “By the way, weren’t you supposed to find Gator

“Yes but he needs power right?”

“As much as I hate to say this, they need you alive. Go, we’ll take care of this,” Violet orders.

November backs away and puts up her hand. “Alright, I just cased out the whole place,” she says sourly.

“We appreciate it.”

“You are going to fuck this whole thing up!” she says and walks away.

Morgana turns to Violet. “We’ve got this covered up here, you and the others sneak down the stairs.”

“Got it.”

Violet hurries down the metal stairs trailed by Gremlin and a few other soldiers. Gunshots echo in from the gap, as Morgana’s sharpshooters pin down the infected.

As she rounds the last loop, she can see the shadows of the climbers moving along the bottom of the gap. Then a figure peels from the shadows beneath the stairs, gun raised.


Violet moves before her former friend can pull the trigger, knocking the gun into the wall beside them and then delivering a quick crack to the side of her head. Lily falls flat on the floor.

Gator paces within Jarhead’s workshop. The air grows thicker as they consume what little fresh air remains.

Something shuffles outside the door. Then the banging begins.

“No business except on party business!” Jarhead shouts as fists slam again and again against the steel door.

November and Tern move quickly and quietly through the darkened corridors, back toward Jarhead’s workshop.

Several different growls come from up ahead.

November keeps her flashlight down low. “Tern, any idea of what that might be?”

“Sounds like dogs,” she says readying her gun. “There were some dogs on the ship.”

November shines the light forward. A half dozen feral green eyes reflect in the darkness.

Her first blast tears through the lead hound as it leaps forward. Tern unloads next to her, automatic fire ripping through most of them.

As the echoes of gunshots die down, all that can be heard is a solitary dog, limping away into a corner. November kicks aside the leader and tries to wipe its blood from her skin. She and Tern continue forward, following the trail of blood. By the time they get there Exit, Lily’s dog, is already dead, its blood growing sticky.

They continue on.

“We do need to get November in here,” Gator says shouting over the banging.

“We could open up one of the side vents,” Jarhead suggests, grabbing an acetylene torch.

”But I’ve done that before,” Gator says,”they might anticipate that.”

”How did that turn out for you?” Jarhead asks.

”Not very well.”

”Well then they probably won’t think you’re dumb enough to try it again.”

”That’s a good point. Let’s try it.”

Jarhead begins cutting. The air fouls but after a few minutes fresh air moves into the chamber.

Gator climbs in. “Seal this up after I’ve gone.”

“No! No!” Jarhead says stepping between his gang and the vent. “We’re going to leave this open so we have some fresh air.”

Gator hoists himself up. “Well I wouldn’t call this air fresh, make sure you wear a mask.”

The ex-mercenary looks back down. “When I get to the door, I’ll give this knock.” He raps against the metal duct. Then he shimmies around and disappears.

Violet steps out into the open space beneath the gap. A pair of men lie bleeding out on the rough ground. She swivels her rifle to fire on one of the three left standing.

She blasts him before he realizes she is there. As the others turn their attention from above, she fires again, dropping a second. Gremlin backs her up downing the third. Quickly they check the casualties. Two dead and one crippled. Violet kicks away his weapon and ties his hands.

“There it is,” Gremlin shouts, pointing to a sparking bundle of wires. “I need some sort of insulator and then I can get these lines together.”

Violet scans the wreckage. She spots some tire scraps among the debris. She tosses the insulator to Gremlin who goes to work on reconnecting the mains.

November and Tern slowly creep up the hallway. A dozen men and women block their path to the workshop, pounding their fists bloody trying to get in.

As she considers her options, she notices a rustling in the vents.The sound of a heavy but very quiet man grows closer, making its way from the workshop and down the hall.

November motions Tern to follow her and they back track to a side room where the ducts open. As they wait, November borrows and dons some extra clothing.

Gator pulls himself the last few inches and looks down into the side room, spotting November and her friend.

“Hey. This way,” he whispers. He slides the grate out of the way and slips down without a sound.

November nods to him. “The people in the hall, they are just people, I can distract them while you two take them out. There are about twelve of them now but there may be more if we wait. You know your situation, what’s best?”

“We’re just waiting for power,” he explains. “ Violet’s working on that.”

Fastening on a jacket, she says, “I figure that the best plan would be to keep the entrance clear until the power comes on.”

Suddenly the lights turn on one by one.

“Never mind. Let’s go this way,” Gator says, grabbing the edges of the vent.

“Shall I go first?” November asks.

“Sure.” He begins to drop down when he says, “Actually when you get near there, you just knock this on the grate. Don’t stick your head out.”

“Okay, just let me know when we are getting close, you know the lay of the land here.”

He pulls himself up. “You know what I’ll lead the way.”

Jarhead watches as his crew begin to relax a little. Even as the climbers bang uselessly against the door, his gang lower their weapons and relax their guard.

Someone gives a distinctive knock in the air ducts.

Shazah bolts upright. “He could be infected! They are still out by the door.”

“No I’m not,” Gator says. “I’m coming through.”

”Just wait,” Jarhead says moving to the duct. “What’s the password?”

“I just gave the password,” the ex-mercenary says through his teeth.

“Sh-should we just shoot him?” Shazah stammer aiming his sword gun at the vent.

”If you shoot me I will be really angry.”

Jarhead shakes his head. “Let’s not shoot him. Come on through.”

Gator slides down into the room. “I’ve got November. Let’s get this thing done.”

Jarhead nods. “Yes, let’s do this before anymore shit happens.”

The pounding gets louder as November slips down.

“I thought you took car of the problem,” Jarhead says to Gator.

“If we take care of this,” Gator says pointing to the device, “it takes care of all of the problems.”

“Okay,’ he sighs, turning to his gang, “Make sure we are not disturbed at all.”

As most of the crowd focus on the door, Jarhead directs November and Gator to their places. Shazah keeps an eye on Gator as the muscular man squeezes into the device’s main seat. He grips the trigger and watches as Jarhead puts a metal colander on November’s head. The dancer tries to remain still as he screws the electrodes into place.

“We don’t want to dig into the skull but we do want contact,” he explains. Finished he points her to the repurposed dentist’s chair rigged up to the God Smiter.

Jarhead powers up the device. A soft blue glow appears over the Tesla sphere filled with red triangles and odder icons. Gator takes careful aim, the machine guided by November’s mind. He pulls the trigger.

A piercing whine resounds inside everyone’s head. Blood leaks from Jarhead nose as November whimpers. Farther way Memo and Rox scream while Shazah bites down on the blade of his sword.

Then a wash of raw maelstrom energy flows from the display and collides with the inhabitants of the room.

November opens her eyes, the screams breaking through her unconsciousness. Jarhead curls in the corner of the room, quietly rocking back and forth. His crew, those not drolling on the floor, busy themselves welding the doors and vents shut, a mad gleam in their eyes.

Gator scans the display as lines of static crisscross it. The banging at the doors at least stopped.

”Hit them again,” November mumbles.

The blue fog clears. A single red triangle appears. “There’s one more.”

Gator squints at the target. “November stay very still. It’s inside you.”

He fires again.

The blue mist washes over the room again as the final god explodes into a mess of memories and rage within November’s mind. Overwhelmed she faints.

In the days to come, most people resumed their normal lives. A med team came down from the Autodoc and treated the infected. With the gods gone, the disease seemed to spread slower.

Violet helped Gator with the clean up, patching up the wounded and avoiding Starbuck. The woman he loved was dead by her hands.

Jarhead meanwhile dealt with the real wreckage. Five souls, five people who worked for him, had lost their minds to the maelstrom. Shazah and Rox seemed different but he guessed they now fit in better with Memo and Waters. They seemed fine, he thinks, damaged. Like me. But fine.

November found herself relieved. Tern seemed distant but the rest of her gang remained intact. Only Shadow was shaken by the loss of the gods.

“You were suppose to save us,” he said sorrowfully before focusing on saving his people.

Changing Course

Violet pauses at the stairs. The cries of alarm ring down the hall behind her. She turns and grabs a fleeing nurse.

“The climbers! They’ve smashed into the front lobby,” the woman shouts.

“Grab anybody who can handle a gun, make a stand at the main entrance,” Violet orders. “I’ll see about hunting up more people. We’ve got to act quickly.”

The obese woman nods dumbly. As she hurries away, Violet tightens her grip on her rifle. She looks up the stairs, her mind visualizing the big glass enclosure in front of the hospital. She turns and makes for the main entrance instead.

A half dozen nurses struggle at the double doors, pushing up makeshift barricade of gurneys and batting at glassy eyed men and women with axes. A couple of men fire blindly into the mindless horde with rusty pistols.

“Follow me!” Violet cries opening fire on the mass of infected.

Together the gang pushes back the sleepwalkers. The attackers scatter, melting into the chaos of the main lobby. Under the starlit glass, dozens of the infected swarm the area, pulling down nurses and patients alike and tearing them apart. Men, women, and children bite and claw like feral beasts. Outside Lily fires again and again as she and her dog Exit race for her motorcycle.

Violet turns and fires on a half naked man climbing the exterior wall. Krin directs the other nurses forward to take the lobby.

As they push deeper into the atrium, the climber victims begin to falter, peeling away in ones and twos. Violet knocks a broken faced woman aside in mid lunge. Meanwhile Krin puts two rounds into a little girl with blood stained lips.

“Why?” he cries. He reloads with tears in his eyes. He fires again. “Why!?”

A man in green T-shirt stops his mindless attack. He blinks his eyes. “What where am I?”

A big man, one of the defenders named Crazy Joe, sinks an axe into his head. He grabs a woman with a shattered arm and thrusts her through a plate glass window. Stepping back, he rubs his bald surgically scarred head with a bloody hand. He turns and gives Violet a smile.

Then five twitching attackers pounce on him, dragging him to the ground in an orgy of blood and brutality.

Violet glances around her. Orderlies and nurses from inside reinforce her dwindling band, doubling their numbers. The climbers, beaten and broken, continue to come at them but with each encounter the defenders push them back another few feet. The front entrance is in sight.

Through the glass, Violet spots Lily. Standing atop her motorcycle, Exit at her feet, she desperately fends off a half dozen of the infected.

Violet pulls her eyes away from her friend. “We must protect the Autodoc

Gator looks at the crowds below from the darkened tower. Cheers and laughter drift up from the market, an island of light in the dark night. Carefully conserved moonshine sloshes freely.

Jarhead continues, “So how about these detonator collars? There’s a lot of people down there you still can’t trust. I could rig it so a simple flick of a switch takes them out if they try anything. All I need is some spare ammo and time. Or we could do shock collars.”

”No shock collars,” Gator says. “No explosives either.”

“I thought you were going to be a fun ruler. I thought we understood each other.”

Morgana speaks up, pulling Gator’s attention to the other side of the small room. “We’ve got to do something about those people, the ones White used as his insurance policy. The climber victims. We’ve rounded them up and put in a shack on the south end. Should we shoot them?”

Gator looks north. “We should negotiate something with the Autodoc

The rugged woman nods. “OK I’ll try to radio them.”

November miggles with the crowds, soaking in their cheer and smiles. A helpful threesome point her to Shell’s.

Only an elderly oriental woman seems to be browsing this stall. The proprietor, a well dressed man with a cape, smiles and asks what she desires.

“I wants something strong. Something that will knock me out for a while.” She glances around. “Any Second Life?”

Shell’s smile falters. “Well I had some before all this trouble came up. But not in quite awhile. I got this.” He holds out a vial of red liquid. “Not quite the same. It’s made from blood ferns but the distillation isn’t very good. It will knock you out but has some side effects.”

November considers the vial for a moment before handing over some jingle. She hangs the vial around neck. As she vanishes into the crowd, she grasps her new talisman.

Violet and the others reach the front entrance. Blood, mostly not theirs, covers their hands, arms and weapons. As the final remnants of the hospital’s defenders arrive, they clear the lobby.

As the nurses move to seal the broken windows and secure the doorway, Violet rushes outside.

The few remaining climbers swarm Lily’s bike. A large man throws her to the ground. He looms over her, asleep to the dog chewing at his leg. His head explodes.

Pulling up her still smoking rifle, Violet runs forward and leaps over the remaining attackers. She pulls Lily free of the crowd and dashes for the entrance. The climber stumble after them. Letting the other woman run ahead, Violet turns and fires at a parked pickup. The bullet strikes the gas tank solidly. A second later a subdued explosion covers their right flank, distracting their pursuers for a moment.

A minute later both women breath heavily within the glass confines of the lobby. Outside the attackers withdraw, beaten and broken for now.

Violet straightens up. “Get that window barricaded,” she shouts to nurses.

Teams of patients and orderlies wheel gurneys into the lobby and turn broken chairs and tables into makeshift walls. As the nurses begin to help the wounded, Violet steps in to deal with the more pressing cases.

As she binds a badly bleeding leg, she overhears someone say, “a call just came from the Big Ship. They say it’s been liberated! They say White’s dead.”

She tightens the tourniquet and looks around. Scavenged boards and duct tape seal off the damaged windows and a half dozen armed men watch the front doors. Satisfied for the moment, she looks for the head nurse.

She finds Millions inside.

“Thank you for saving us," the porcelain skinned nurse says. "If they had gotten past that doorway it would be over for us. And if we had lost the atrium, all of our food would be gone. If there is anything that you need let me know.”

“I can’t think anything right now,” Violet tells the androgynous figure.

Millions smiles. "Our doors will always be open to take care of any harm that you have suffered.”

Violet gives her a quick rundown on her recommendations for improving defenses. Then she excuses herself.

In the lobby she finds Lily. After checking for any climbers nearby, they grab Lily’s bike and ride south to the liberated ship.

November slips away from another party. All around her the holding continues its celebration. Shadow’s muscular form materialize next to her.

“Now that these troubles are past." The savage warrior holds his breath for a moment as he shuffles his feet. "You’re the Messenger.”

“The what?” November says arching an eyebrow.

Jarhead had said you were the Messenger. You’re the one we’ve been searching for.”

“Cool,” she says calmly.

Shadow presses on. “The gods granted me a vision, they said you were the one who would lead my people to salvation.”

“Cool,” she says, her eyes searching around. “I don’t know much about your religion, sorry. What salvation were you thinking of?”

“You need to lead my people away from the devastated land they live in," he explains.

“That sounds like a good idea but I don’t know any place better. You’ve got a nice set up.”

He throws his arms wide. "There’s no food there, my people are starving.”

“I see,” she says.

November stretches out her thoughts. The image of a ruin hotel floats to the surface. The site of Dustwich’s death. Between the mangroves and the rising seas. The clear waters teem with life. But in the depths something stirs with a hunger of its own.

“I think I know a good place," she says after a pause. "How do you like seafood?”

Shadow shrugs. “I see food, I eat it.”

”We should see if there is anybody who would like to join us." She grabs Shadow’s shoulder. "And don’t call me the Messenger to them, they wouldn’t understand.”

Morgana briefs Gator in the command room high above the top deck. “Seems the Autodoc had a bit of an incident.”

“Incident?” Gator asks.

Morgana leans on the table between them. “Yeah they got attacked by a whole gang of climbers.”

“So that’s where all those people went.”

She nods. “They managed to drive them off. They said something about Violet helping out.”

“That’s good, as long as they are okay over there. How have the negotiations gone?”

“I’ve talked to them about taking the climber cases but they are kind of in disarray. But I think we should be able to ferry them up.”

“Let’s get on that then.”

Morgana smiles. “I’ll arrange a boat.”

Gator and Jarhead patrol the deck of the Big Ship early the next morning. Only the mutant gulls and a few groaning drunks disturb the hulk’s silence. The pair of men look over the rusty 50 caliber machine guns.

“We need to patch up this place’s defenses,” Gator says.

Jarhead rubs his goatee. “We can do this, we can make them fire at full speed, like they’re almost out of the shop but we will need to buy some parts.”

“Okay how much.”

“It will cost four barter to get it all said and done. I can guarantee it will spit bullets like nothing around.” Jarhead turns to Gator. “I know you are good for these things. So I’ll do it for three now and you can pay the rest when it’s finished.”

Gator considers three people lying in a drunken heap. “Four is a bit much.”

“Okay,” Jarhead’s smiles fades away.”Then you don’t get your gun.”

“Make sure you are working on that god puncher thing,’ Gator says.

“I prefer god smiter.”

Gator turns back to the rusty hulks. “The machine guns work enough for now.”

“Suit yourself.”

Jarhead hurries back down below. As he returns to work on the weapon, he smiles at Allison’s progress on the shock collars. She should have some done soon.

Jarhead connects another cable with a yawn. He looks around. Allison and the others have yet to return to the workshop. He lets his eyes close for a moment. He blinks and yawns. Jarhead grabs another cable and plugs it in. He tries shrug off the accumulated lethargy of two sleepless nights. He wanders over to his augury. After polishing it up he rests his head again.

He blinks.

His feet sit in ankle deep water. A low mist fills the gaps between the trees that surround him.



Voices whisper to him from all directions. Some he recognizes. Tom who died while Jarhead was out of town. Crazy Jane who popped while he worked on a carburetor. Tram, Skinhead, and Headlight. All dead. All victims of the climbers.

“This is not good, this is not good.” He mutters as figures move in the mist. “This is not good.”

Jarhead creeps away from the voices. His back hits a tree. Nervously his hand sneaks around and finds a knob. Quickly he pulls the door open and steps inside.

A dark field spreads in front of him. He looks up and back. A towering factory looms over him. Broken windows and gray crumbling wood. Illuminated by a dying moon.

“Psst, over here.”

Jarhead looks past a withered old tree, bleached at the roots. A child lurks in its shadow.

“I can help you, they are coming for you,” the boy tells him, “I can protect you, but you need to do something for me.”

Jarhead glances behind him. Several massive step pyramids rear into the sky. Blood drips down their staircases.

“That’s not intimidating at all,” he mutters. “Okay, who are you?”

“You know who I am.” The child steps out from behind the tree. The scars still remains, years after the savaging the crocodile dealt him.

White Jarhead states. “Right. Not the first person I expected to find in this place. Then again I don’t know why I should be surprised. So what do you want? Besides not being dead. I don’t think I can help with that, your head is all leaky.”

“I need a new body.”

Jarhead shakes his head. “I was afraid you would say that.”

Jarhead scratches his chin. “If I make you a new body, you keep them off my back?”

“Yes, I’ll protect you from the gods Thunder rumbles around White.

”You know what I’m trying to do,” Jarhead says.

White steps in front of him. “Yes.”

“Can you wait until I finish before I bring you back among us?”

“I’d like a sign of good faith,” White says, the moonlight illuminating his teeth through his ravaged cheek. “The gods know what you are up to, you told their emissary. They will come from you.”

Jarhead opens his mouth and then closes it. “In the end I guess it doesn’t matter who said what. But I wonder if you can wait? Look, I assume you are the maelstrom.”

“I’m always in the maelstrom.”

“So if I ever want to go back in, you’ll be there.”

“They are all here,” White says looking past him.

“Screw them, I mean you.” As White nods, Jarhead continues, “so if I attempt to renege on our deal here, I can never go back to the one place I need to explore. I’m not going to cut myself off.”

The boy remains impassive. The tinkerer sighs. “How about I set one of my assistants on it once I get back. I suppose the assurance that you are doing your part is that my soul stays in my body.”

White nods. “I will protect you on this end. Your friends will have to protect your body.”

“You know I’m only the one who can build this device. You want this as much as we do.” White stands stone-like before him. “Can I get up now?”

Jarhead wakes with a jerk. He spots Waters and Memo enjoying some breakfast. “You two! I’ve got a job for you. I need you to build a metal skeleton. Nothing fancy. No super strength. And we need to put a big kill switch on back. Red and well-labeled.”

The sun turns the eastern waters into a golden sparkle. November looks over her ‘congregation’. The giant, Lafferty, nurses a shattered arm. The Kite family huddles around their packs and gear. Off on her own, Sunset hums a tune while she scrubs the stains out her robe. No one looks comfortable amid the Big Ship’s field of tin shacks.

Shadow comes up beside her. “We should head back to my holding. They’ve been waiting for me for almost a month.”

November nods. “We’ll need some transportation and supplies. Let me see what I can find.”

Morgana finds Gator in the tower watching the boats below move in the gulf between the Big Ship and shore. “Boss we’ve got a problem.”

“What is it?”

She points to the south end of the holding. “Wire went to check on the climber victims. We don’t have to worry about them anymore. But we do have to worry about It.”

Gator’s scars twist down. “So it ran its course.”


“Burn it.”

Morgana nods with a smile. “I’ve got Wire and Crudehammer on it right now.”

A fireball erupts at the south end moments before the boom of the explosion arrives. Morgana’s voice sinks. “I told them not to use grenades.”

“Let’s cordon off that section,” Gator orders. “Seal off the vents.”

Morgana hurries off, leaving Gator to watch the plume of smoke. His eyes shift to the beach. A motorcycle pulls up on the white sands. Grabbing a scope, he spies Lily and Violet on board.

He talks into a speaking tube. “Pheonix, you there?”

“Yes, boss?”

“I’ve got a job for you.”

Violet and Lily pull up to the shore just as a rough gang of tattooed freaks boards the last boat. The circuit board armored savages let loose a cry as they row toward the Big Ship.

The women and the dog Exit look for another way across. Minutes later their answer comes in the form of a second boat slowly rowed across the bay. An unfamiliar woman in a long coat stands at the bow.

“You’re Violet right?” the woman asks, jumping down to the sands. “I’m here to greet you. Name is Phoenix.”

“Alright,” Violet says, eyeing the woman. Phoenix’s long coat hangs heavy over her short skirt. “We need to get to the ship.”

She gestures behind her. “Right, get aboard, Gator sent me over to welcome you onto the Big Ship. We’ve got business up and running again.”

“Great,” she says climbing aboard with her companions.

Phoenix jumps back on the boat. “Okay boys get us back over.”

The men at the oars begin to row back across the still waters.

Phoenix turns back to Violet. “So Gator didn’t give me a lot of information, but you are friends right?”

“Associates,” she corrects her.

“He mentioned some business you had to talk about. Some deal you had.”

“There’s a little something I owe him. I’ll make sure we’re square.”

“Good, good,” the young woman says, shaking her auburn clad head. ”Don’t want to make the new boss unhappy.”

“New boss?” Violet asks.

White’s dead. Out with the old and in with the new.” She hastily adds, “with more sanity.”

“This doesn’t seem like what we wanted,” Lily says sharply.

“We have to take into account what the people on the ship want,” Violet patiently says.

“Well if they are like her, it looks like they are happy.” Lily raises her hands. “Crap, we struggled for a whole month on this! People died!”

“I’m not happy with it either,” Violet says. “But if that’s the way it is then maybe we need to find somewhere else.“

Lily glares at her passionless leader. “After all of this, you are just going to give up?”

“That’s what the people want.” Violet lapses in a lecture. “I’ve told you before, it just as much of idea that the people have to be onboard with.”

“Damn it, Violet!”

Lily’s outcry rebounds off the Big Ship’s rusty hull just as they dock.

Phoenix bounds off the rowboat and gestures to an elevator. “Well we can go this way.”

“You go that way!” Lily shouts. “After all of this they put another dictator in charge. Wonderful. Great.”

“I’m not happy about it either,” Violet says.

“You could fool me!”

Lily storms off into the bowels of the ship.

Phoenix leads Violet to the top deck and then up the tower. As they climb the stairs, she says to Violet, “she seemed a little upset.”

“Well, yeah. Some of people had been hoping to start a republic.”

Phoenix looks up the stairwell. “Sounds great and all, but there something to be said about going with what works.”

They continue up the metal steps. The damp rusted stairs moan briefly at the fourth floor.

“Anyway I don’t care either way,” she says turning to Violet. “You look pretty bad off. With your friend gone…let’s just say if you leave on your own, talk to me first. I can set you up with something to protect yourself.”

“Don’t worry. I can take care of myself,” Violet smiles as she points to her face. “Plus I’ve got a friend here who can patch up this shiner.”

Phoenix throws open the door to the command room. Gator and a few men look up from a metal wheel covered in bits of paper. Violet scrutinizes it for a minute before Phoenix announces, “Gator! I brought her.”

Gator stands up obscuring her view of several words: amputation, death, Gator’s choice.

“Oh Violet, glad that nasty of business at the Autodoc didn’t take you out,” he says. “Sounded pretty bad.”

“Well if my face didn’t show it already, I’m kind of hard to kill.”

Gator grins, his scar twisting horribly. “I guess we have that in common. You heard that White was killed.”

Violet moves into the room, getting a closer look at Gator’s wheel of punishments. “I have to admit that I’m a little surprised that you set yourself up here.”

“Well the way I see it, these people need some stability. The only place in this god forsaken land that at one point had a purpose is here.”

Violet walks up to the imposing ex-mercenary. “So I guess my ideas of the Republic didn’t mean anything.”

“That’s not why I was with you,” he says frowning softly. “I thought I made that pretty clear.”

“Yes,” she says. “But think of what could be. This country was great once and it could be again.” She begins to lecture on what the United States was and how they could build a new nation here. Gator listens and tries to get a word in without success. Finally she concludes, “think about it, a world without tyrants, with guaranteed rights and freedoms.”

Gator sighs. “That sounds good in theory but there are way too many batshit crazy assholes out there. That’s not going to work right now. What these people need is stability. Vote someone in, then that person leaves and the next guy has to start from scratch.”

“But eventually it begins to build up and take root.”

“But how do you do that?” he asks.

“Have a good solid foundation to build on.”

“What foundation?”

“A moral one,” she argues.

“That’s what I’m doing.” He points at the wheel. “This right here. It’s the wheel. Break a deal, face the wheel.”

“More than that I think,” she mutters.

“It’s a start, more than most places have.”

Violet looks at Gator and his men. “Well I tried. Now we do have a little business to conduct. I believe I owe you something.”

She digs into her bulging pack and hands Gator some barter. As Gator takes it, she asks, “where’s Jarhead

Gator hesitates. “He’s working on something very important.”

“OK can you tell me where to find him? I have some important business with him too.”

“He’s got a workshop below,” he says. “Phoenix show her down.”

Orange bulbs light the damp steel corridor as Phoenix and Violet head deeper into the ship. They turn a corner and come up behind the same gang of savages Violet spied on the beach. An axe wielding woman leads the gang forward. Up ahead a heavy steel door blocks the entrance to Jarhead’s workshop.

Phoenix calls out, “uh, hello? Who are you?”

The woman, Mercy, turns and says, “we’re here to see the miracle worker.”

A spiky haired teen in the back adds, “yeah, we’re here see to Jarhead. We heard he makes the craziest stuff.”

“I heard he drilled a hole in his head,” says a tall man with circuitry tattooed along his arm.

“The crazy thing is I was actually there,” Violet whispers to Phoenix.

“He really drilled a hole in his own head?” she says with wide eyes.


The crowd reaches the door and knocks.

“Go away busy!” they hear Jarhead shout.

“We want to see you Jarhead,” the savages cry.

“Who’s we?”

“We’re your biggest fans,” Mercy says.

Jarhead cracks open the door. “I have fans?”

He spies Violet in the back. “Are these guys with you?”

Violet shakes her head. “No, we kind of crossed paths on the way here. I’m as confused by them as you are.”

Jarhead tilts his head to the woman in a circuit board bikini. “What’s going on?”

“We want to help,” Mercy says.

“With what?” Violet calls out. “Pray tell.”

The big man explains, “we heard you got banged up a bunch at the Music Bowl. We figure we can crack some heads, keep you safe.”

“Wow, rewind,” Jarhead says. “You want to keep me safe.”

“Yeah so you can make stuff,” Mercy says, hefting her axe.

“Everybody wants me to make stuff.” He mutters, “Granted it’s what I’m really good at.”

“Is that a robotic skeleton over there?” the spiky haired woman says, worming her way forward.

Jarhead turns to the workbench. “Uh, yeah actually.”

“That’s awesome!”

Jarhead smiles and says, “isn’t it?”

Jarhead moves to the table, allowing the crowd to move into the workshop.

As he avidly chats about the device, Violet interrupts. “What’s it for?”

“A deal I made with someone,” he says. “Don’t worry about it. But it has this hydraulic thing…”

As he shows off the arm, gasps and cries of “cool” circulate through the crowd. The spikey haired girl introduces herself as Rox and presses up close to Jarhead for a better look.

“Where’s all of this circuitry going to lead to?” she asks, tracing the wires with her long fingers to the top of the body.

“We’re working on that,” he says. “We still need five circuit boards, ten yards of wire, some screws, and some sheet metal.”

As Jarhead basks in the attention, Violet patiently waits. Phoenix excuses herself and heads back to the surface.

Eventually the inventor says, ”Okay I’ve got stuff to do.”

“What doors do you need protecting?” Mercy asks. “How can we help?”

Jarhead tells them to get some supplies. The crowd disperses except for a couple of large men who watch the entrance of the workshop for trouble.

Jarhead sidles up to Allison as she puts together a shock collar. “This is amazing.”

“I guess,” she says.

His smile drops for a moment. “That’s great. But that whole ‘I guess’? You think too much about the consequences.”

Allison looks over to the corner. “I think Violet is waiting to talk to you about something.”

“She’s still here?” He turns to the survivalist. “I mean hi. What’s going on?”

Violet walks closer. “Now that things have quieted down, I was thinking with how things are at the Autodoc you might be better able to deal with this right here than them.” She points to her damaged face.

“So what do you want from me?” Slowly he asks, “Do you want me to fix you? Do you want me to enhance you?”

“Just fix me,” she orders.

“Okay I guess I could do that for three barter,” he says. “It will take a few hours and then you’ll need to rest for a week.”

November steps out of her tent. Despite her lackluster efforts, supplies and gear pile up near where her people are camped. Once they secure enough vehicles they will need to be on their way. She turns to find Gator moving through the collection of tents towards her.

“Hi Gator,” she says.

“Hi,” the big man says. “I hear you are moving on.”

“Well yeah, I’ve got a group of people asking to move out. Not that I don’t love what you’ve done with this place but I never really stay around too long.”

He nods. “I feel that. I don’t normally stick around myself.”

“You’ve got to try new things every once in a while right?” she says unsmiling.

“Yes and this place needs someone.”

“Besides Shadow is asking me to lead his people.” Her eyes seek his as she raises an eyebrow.

Gator studies her. The beautiful woman plays with a vial of red liquid around her neck with one hand while the other traces a pattern on a map on the table in front of her. An x marks the spot where they killed Dustwich. He glances around the camp. He sees lots of packed bags but none in her tent.

“How’s everything going around here?” she asks. “Any trouble getting stuff up and running?”

“Surprisingly no, White was so much of an asshole that they are happy to do anything. Jarhead is busy working on his own things. I’m looking at upgrading guns but he’s got a lot on his plate. He’s talking about shock collars. I don’t really agree with that.”

She interrupts him. “Have you seen Violet lately?”

“She stopped in, paid for services rendered. I don’t know where she got off to. She went to see Jarhead.“

“I wonder if she’s still upset with me,” November says. “We haven’t resolved anything between us yet.”

“She didn’t say anything about you,” Gator tells her. “She made some points on the whole Republic thing. I think her democracy thing could work in a perfect world but this world isn’t perfect.”

“It could have worked better if she read people better,” she comments.

“Could be.”

A touch of bitterness drips into her voice. “I think she trusted the people she shouldn’t and shot the ones she should.”

”That could be a character weakness of hers,” the hardholder says. “What’s done is done. I think she’s going to be moving on too.”

“But you’d tell me if she was coming after me right?” she asks.

“Yes,” he says.

A woman with a peg leg runs up. Lala, the eldest daughter of the Kites, excitedly tells November, “we lucked out, we got us a bus.”

“Great, where is it now?” the dancer asks.

“We’re talking to the owner, they’re parked three blocks inland.”

“OK, we’ll have to take a look, make sure it’s in good shape. It’s a dangerous trip.”

“Going to need gas too,” Gator comments. “Buses sucks down a lot of gas.”

November focuses on Lala. “I think I’ll ask my friend Jarhead to take a look at it. See if it is roadworthy. Have you already paid for it?”

“It’s a trade,” the dark haired woman explains. “They need a little protection themselves.”

“They want come with us?”

“Yes they are travelers, they need to head north.”

“I guess that makes it a little easier if the gas on them. What’s their leader’s name?”

“Mill,” Lala says scratching her phantom limb absently.

Mill. The name hangs in November’s mind. She doesn’t recognize it but she feels like she knows someone who does. Someone she knows well.

She turns to Gator. “Thanks for checking in on me.”

The weathered warrior nods. His eyes drawn equally back to the tower and to the market itself. “You’re seeing Jarhead? I’ll tag along I guess.”

Violet slumbers, her head encased in bandages. Jarhead turns over the strange device she brought with her.

He thinks back to what Violet told him.

“This halted the climbers while you wore it?” he asked her.

“That’s what Memo said.”

But when he asked Memo about it, she just replied, “What?”

“This thing that you made and then gave to Violet.”

“Yes so you would come and be safe,” the little girl told him.

“Safe, whatever. How did you make this?”

Memo scrunched her eyes as she recalled what she did. “Out of wires, a radio, and a car battery that Violet found.”

“What holds the charge?” he queried her.

“I don’t know.”

“Where’d you get the idea for this?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Okay,” he said slowly. “Did you hear a voice?”


“You just got a feeling to put these things this way?”

“Yeah, like that.”

Jarhead shakes his head, returning to the present. “This is mildly concerning,” he mutters.

He tinkers with it a bit more. Hours pass before he realizes he is no closer to how it works. I need a test subject. Or some other way to understand it. His eyes come to rest on the Tesla sphere.

Jarhead turns to his new ‘assistants’. “Are any of you tech savvy? Can you solder?”

Rox pipes up. “I can solder.”

“Here, attach the remaining wires to that.” thrusting a soldering iron into her hands and pointing her to the massive device taking up the back third of the room.

Jarhead grabs the sphere and tunes it to the Maelstrom’s frequency. Let’s see what it knows.

Gator and November tread through the metal corridors within the ship. As they near the workshop, a wave of sensation and memory flow over them.

November reaches out for Gator’s arm. She tastes ocean spray, hears violin music, and catches the image of a little girl looking out the window of a plane.

“You feel that?” she asks as the sensations fade.

“Uh, yeah,” Gator says.

Jarhead dives into an ocean of knowledge. His mind tries to encompass it but fails. Infinities condense, fold and flatten. He finds himself standing within a vast library. Each book bound in leather. Black, white and every shade between. They squirm, these books of human flesh. He finds himself racing down the rows to a particular book. A pale book dotted in freckles.

He holds it in his hands.

Unfamiliar memories flood his mind. This book was a person, this person went to university, he emigrated to the United States, the scientist worked at a lab. The thoughts come even faster. The disease had spread to 90% of the population. Something had to be done. The device would interfere with the fungus’s spore production and development. It was too late. He could already feel itchiness and fever. The device stopped the fungus from…

Jarhead feels a sickening rip as the fungus burst through the man’s head. Then the book’s thoughts and memories continue forward. The scientist confused, awash in a sea of minds. Lost in a maelstrom of thoughts and ripped from physical world. Everyone who suffered the plague surrounds him.

Except a few, those few test subjects with the device. They remain isolated from the growing hive mind.

Jarhead pulls himself back to the real world. “So she used a radio to block the transmissions of the hive mind,” he mutters. “Well, well, well. It won’t keep them alive but it will keep them sane.”

The knock at his door jars his thoughts.

“I really need to get a sign up there. ‘Do not disturb’.”

Violet leans on a worn post and rail fence. Inside the alligators bask in the sun, enjoying another pleasant day in Stumpland. Uncle Buck tosses another slice of roadkill to the hungry beasts.

A familiar voice calls to her from behind.

She turns, the pain forgotten from her face, and smiles at Marshal. “Hey. Long time, no see.”

“Feels like forever,” the handsome young man says. “You’re looking as great as ever.”

Her smile dips slightly as she remembers. “You wouldn’t know it from how I look in the real world right now.”

“That doesn’t matter here, does it?” he asks joining her at the fence. His smile quivers.

“Guess not. Missed you.” She leans into him.

“I missed you too,” he says his eyes searching hers. “But hey, I found the most amazing thing. Let me go show you.”

Violet doesn’t move as her long dead lover steps toward the swamp. Her smile disappears into her stiffening expression. Her eyes trace a route to Jackbird’s.

She gulps down a breath and calls to Marshal, “I’ll come back for you I promise.”

She turns and races for the nearest generator.

Behind her, Marshall shouts, “run!”

She looks behind her. Her boyfriend struggles with himself. He looks up more beast than man and bounds towards her. She doesn’t look back again.

Moments later she dashes through Jackbird’s store, ignoring his startled cry on her way to the back.

Marshall growls, ”no! Not there!”

But she’s already within the maze of corridors that make up Jackbird’s boat.

The darkened corridors weave through ship. As she presses on, the walls flicker and disappear. Tiny squares of perfect darkness appear in her vision. Sparks of sensation strike: light glares off a big silver ball, the smell of rotten meat, a brief glimpse of men and women in strange mouse ear hats feeding on long bones.

“What the hell?” she mutters, feeling her way forwards as the visions grow stronger and more intense. She stumbles through high tech underground tunnels, watches animatronic soldiers fending off mutant cannibals, and hears a jangling tune of ‘it’s a small world.’

She pushes past the flickering images and stumbles into the generator room. Wasting no time she grabs a live wire with her bare hand. Pain runs through her body.

Another knock comes through the steel door. Shazah looks to Jarhead, ‘111’ tattooed clearly on his bald head.

Jarhead calls out, “who is it?”

“It’s November and Gator,” November replies.

Jarhead nods and Shazah unlatches the door with a kachunk.

“Hey!” Jarhead says. He pauses for a moment. “Buddies.”

November and Gator look to each other and nod.

Stepping inside, November leads off the conversation. “Hi Jarhead. I have a small job for you but I know you’re busy. If you’ve got something really big going on I understand if you have to do it tomorrow or the next day.”

“How’s your project coming along?” Gator asks the confused inventor.

Jarhead snaps to the hardholder. “It’s going well. Slow though.”

He gestures to a woman on a gurney. Thick bandages encase her head. “Violet required a bit of work.”

”Oh my god!” November says. “Is she okay?”

“Yes. Just a little brain surgery. Nothing serious.”

“Alright,” Gator says very slowly.

“I’m better than the Autodoc he assures them.

“Why’d she need brain surgery?” November asks.

“Skull reconstruction,” he says moving around the patient. “Good stuff. But it’s working. I think. She’ll wake up eventually. A couple days I think.“

November relaxes. “I’ll definitely understand if you need a couple of days to help her.”

Jarhead waves a hand at the prone woman. “Well she’s just sleeping and that won’t take any of my time. But I am doing something for him.”

The tinkerer points to Gator and then sticks a thumb at a pedestal hooked up to large wires. A metal chair hangs off of it.

November looks away quickly. “I don’t need to know all the stuff you are doing!”

Averting her eyes, she continues. “Here’s the deal, I’ve got a bunch of people who want me to lead them back up north. There’s an old bus that would be a good transport. But I want someone with your skills to give it a once over. No repairs, I just want to know that I can trust it to get us across the swamp.”

“I suppose I can give it a looksee,” he says.

“Thanks, but like I said I understand if you need to take a couple days.”

“So this thing isn’t really big?” he asks confused. “It wouldn’t take long.”

“Yeah but I have a few other things to get ready too. I want to make sure everything is ready. Get snake bite kits and water. Understand?”

Jarhead nods. “Well if you don’t mind then can you wait a day or two or five?”

‘Sure. I just want to make sure everything is ready to go when I leave,” she says.

Waters approaches the gathering. “It came along a bit faster than I thought. I’m done with my bit.”

The boy gestures to a metallic endoskeleton. Hydraulics and circuitry cover the steel limbs.

”What is that?” Gator asks

”Wow,” November says.

“It’s a robotic skeleton,” Jarhead says, ignoring their shocked expressions. “It’s an ongoing experiment. Trust me, it’s relevant to the problems at hand.” He turns to the bored child. “Waters, I’ll have something for you to do very shortly.”

He returns to November. “If you let me deal with Waters, I’ll get back to you in a little bit.”

She shrugs. “Okay. I’m glad to know you are willing to take the case.”

November steps out of the room as Gator gets in Jarhead’s face. “What are you intending to do with that skeleton?”

Jarhead shuffles his feet. “I kind of promised a presence in the psychic maelstrom that skeleton in return for protection from things that don’t like me right now.” He glances to the machine in the corner. “Really really don’t like me.”

“That’s a terrible idea.”

Violet’s eyes snap open.

Jarhead steps over to her gurney as she stirs. “You! You should not be awake right now. Go back to sleep.”

Violet blinks and mumbles something. “What’s going on?”

“No seriously you should still be asleep,” he says as he flicks her forehead.


“That’s not usually how people go to sleep,” Gator advises.

“Well I usually go to sleep by collapsing,” Jarhead says, continuing to poke his patient’s head. He looks at Allison and Waters. “They go to sleep when I tell them to sleep and it happens. Right?”

Allison shakes her head slowly. ”Uh, no? And didn’t you take apart her forehead? Wouldn’t that jab bits of bone into her brain?”

“Not very likely,” he says.

Violet tries to pull herself upright. As her head sways, she says, “apparently you can enter the Maelstrom by dreaming.”

“You too huh.” As Violet nods, Jarhead turns to Gator, ”we are going to have a lot of problems on our hands if that happens to everyone.”

Gator scratches his head. “Weren’t you just making that happen? Cause it felt a little weird around here.”

Allison joins the conversation by Violet’s gurney. “It feels weird around here a lot.”

“Is it safe to be sleeping here?” Violet asks.

“Yes, go to sleep,” the inventor tells her.

“I actually have a bunk on deck,” Allison mumbles.

Jarhead continues to advise Violet. “You really shouldn’t be moving anyway so you are staying here.”

“I have to agree with Jarhead,” his assistant says. “Your head was in so many pieces. It was really scary to look at.”

“Ssh,” Jarhead says. “Don’t panic the patient.”

“Who says I’m panicking?’ Violet grumbles, sliding back onto her bed.

Gator interrupts this digression. “So Jarhead, November’s left, so where are we at?”

“I just have to hook the augury and then hook it up to her,” he nods to the door, “I’m a little fuzzy on those details and then-”

“Hook it up to who?”

He bites his lip. “Umm someone who is connected to the gods like November is. I can’t mention it to her so hooking her up will need to be something like ‘Hello. Zap’.”

“So you’re going to knock her out first.”

“It’s probably easiest,” he shrugs.

Gator looks at the strange device. “Does she has to be conscious to aim it?”

“Yes, but this way I can set her up easier. Then wake her up.”

Violet turns her head to see what they are looking at. As she regards the weird pedestal and metal chair, she asks, “couldn’t you use that doohickey Memo made?”

“What doohickey?” Gator asks.

“This doohickey,” Jarhead says pulling out the mass of wires and coils. “It blocks the climbers from their hive mind. It might work.”

“Sounds like it would work,” Gator says. “How does it work? Can we put it on November?”

“Yes!" Jarhead begins to pace around the ‘God Smiter.’ "The climbers is like a hive mind. Everyone is connected. This breaks the connection. So we can put this on her-”

“What is this?” Gator points at the large machine. “This isn’t a gun? I told you to make a gun.”

“It’s a figurative gun,” he explains. “You don’t need a gun to shoot gods. They’re not people.”

Gator stares at the smaller man. “That’s what I asked for, that is what I know how to use.”

“Yes well in the maelstrom, the gods I’ve seen are bleeding pyramids. Where’s the head to aim at?”

“I’d know where to fire.”

Jarhead shrugs. “Well next time you are in the maelstrom, you can take a look around yourself. If you want I can even put a trigger on it.”

Kill White

The gods buzz angrily in the back of November’s mind as she and Wisher climb through the burning wreckage of the Music Bowl.

“Kill him,” they hiss. “He hurt us. Eliminate him. Murder. Pain.”

She concentrates for a moment, projecting her thoughts. He hurt us? What do you mean?

“Fire. Fire, pain,” they whisper. “Murder him for us. Murder the child.”

She glances to the man beside her. “Can you see if Amber and Sharp made it out? I’ll meet you over there,” she points, “it looks like the survivors are gathering there.”

Wisher nods and heads off. Once he is out of sight, she races for the wastes and performs a ritual to the gods.

Calmer but with voices of hate, they tell her, “ White, he has hurt us, he must be destroyed.”

The dancer orients herself by the fires and the growing light to the east. She heads for Gator’s camp.

Jarhead’s van bounces along the fire lit parking lot of the Music Bowl. Violet glances in driver’s side mirror. Lily’s motorcycle keeps pace, silhouetted by the raging fires. Jarhead pushes through the cramped confines of the back, crawling over his helpers and guards to peer over Violet’s shoulder.

“Eyes up!” He says pointing to a group of heavily armed men and women moving to intercept them. “Shit, shit, shit.”

Violet picks out their blue circuit board tattoos in her headlights, their chromed weapons, and recycled bits of armor and clothing. Tech worshippers.

“Don’t look at them, just keep driving,” Jarhead says. “We don’t know them. Maybe they’ll leave us alone.”

Violet swerves away. As they leave the strangers behind, Lily pulls alongside Violet. “Alright we got that taken care of,” she shouts. “Now are you going to tell what happened to you!”

Violet thinks back. To the fungus infested tunnels. Chasing Cougar. The ceremony. Blood. The pieces of the puzzle fall together with crystal clarity. November lured Cougar to a ritually prepared chamber. There she slit the giant’s throat, bleeding her onto a pattern in the soft earth. Strands of mycelium swelled with each drop, a throbbing pulse of mental energy reaching her weakly as it grew. November unlike Cougar or herself was maskless, unaffected by the plague. November worked for the enemy, a force working against her and her aims. She felt she had no other option and shot first. November returned fire and everything went black.

“I guess I found the Messenger,” Jarhead mutters as she recounts the events.

“But what is she the messenger of?” Violet says.

Jarhead twists his head to look at her. “Come on really? They never said they were looking for the good side of life.”

Lily gets shakes her head. “What!! November sent Boo and the others to the Autodoc! And she shot you in the face.”

Violet nods.

“You got the jump on her and she shot you in the face?” Jarhead comments.

“I’m about as confused about that as you are,” Violet says sourly.

Allison calls out from the back. “Well she does have that really big shotgun.”

“You’re clearly not a warleader,” Jarhead tells Violet. “Stick with motivational speaking.”

“And didn’t she also capture Cougar?” The young woman shouts forward as she pushes up to the front. “November sounds pretty dangerous.”

Violet looks back through the rearview mirror. “You’ve seen what happens when she has her way.”

“You’ve seen what happens when she dances?” Jarhead says.

Memo suddenly climbs on top of the pile of junk on the front passenger seat. “Maybe we should talk to someone who can handle her? Like Gator

“Gator can handle her?” Jarhead says.

“If he can’t handle her then who?” the little girl asks. “Maybe White, I heard he took a gator once.”

“They have things in common, wonderful.”

Violet muses. “That’s not a bad idea.”

Gator wakes with a start. Rubbing the feel of sharp cold fingers from his skin, he gets up and surveys his team. Already the mercenary company is readying to move on. The growing light to the east begins to overtake the blaze behind them.

As he gathers his gear, he listens as the men discuss their task.

“Do we really want to take the Big Ship One of them questions. “That place is a fortress.”

Gator’s eyes size up the dissenter. Crudehammer shifts uneasily in his swat gear under his gaze.

Gator tells him, “we don’t need to take the Big Ship, we just have to kill White

The balding man turns to him. “Okay we kill White, how do we do that? That scrawny little kid’s not going to show himself. Not off the ship.”

“So we either find a vantage point to snipe from, we lure him out somehow or we sneak in.”

Crudehammer frowns. “I don’t how good your rifle is, but you’ll have be pretty far out to have height on the Big Ship.”

Gator nods grimly. “I know.”

“I know he was looking for help at one point,” the younger man offers. “He needed somebody to fix things.”

Gator grins. “I know somebody who can fix things. We could pose as his guard.”

Crudehammer shrugs.

“Either way we are not going to attack it by force,” Gator reassures him. “If we can’t get height or get him out, then we’ll sneak in. I’m working on a plan. Everybody just be ready.”

Morgana glances only for a moment as Jarhead’s van approaches. As she turns to direct the last of the breaking of camp, Gator strides forward. Lily’s motorcycle continues to shadow the van.

He notes Violet in the driver’s seat with a frown. A raw wound covers the left side of her face. The scoring and charring tells him what did the damage. But not why.

As Violet pulls the vehicle to a stop, Gator heads for the driver’s side window. “What the fuck happened to you?”

“I got shot in the face, what does it look like?” she says loudly.

“Kinda of looks like you got shot in the face,” he says. “With a shotgun or something.”

Lily stops behind him. “You’ve got to hear the whole story though.”

He glances back at her. “Looks like she took a shotgun to the face.”

“Yes we have established this,” Violet says with a scowl.

“You’re looking pretty good for taking a shotgun to the face.”

“But it’s the who that’s important!” Lily interrupts.

“So who shot you?” Gator asks.

Violet fills him in, holding back none of the details.

Gator runs over the story. “So November shot you. And you shot November because she was killing Cougar. Cougar was a waste anyway. Why keep her around?”

“I thought I could get some intel from her,” she explains.

Gator look into the van. “Okay, hey Jarhead are you in there?”

Jarhead squirms out of the back. “Hey how’s it going?”

Gator turns to him. “Remember that thing about Sir Fredricks? About November doing something dangerous. Could you find out about that? Now?”

“About Sir Frederick’s?” the tinkerer says.

“Fucking talk to Sir Fredricks,” Gator orders.

“Who is Sir Fredricks?” Violet asks as she gets out of the van as well.

“He’s a dead guy who knows Jarhead.”

“He’s not technically dead,’ Jarhead corrects. “His body is still alive.”

“Jarhead! Do it now. This is not a request.”

Violet stands beside Gator. ”You know what Jarhead, just do it!”

“Alright,” Jarhead says. “You know what? Sure, I’ll do it!”

The smaller man pulls the Tesla sphere out of the back and then grabs Gator’s hand.

As the pair concentrate on the humming device, November slips through the growing crowd donning an extra scarf across her face as she spots Violet. Sensing what Jarhead’s purpose she grabs the scrawny inventor’s shoulder and gives a mental push.

Instantly Gator and Jarhead feel a presence in their minds. The smell of dust thickens the air as the pair’s thoughts intermingle. A roiling hot intensity settles on them.

“Gator meet Sir Fredricks Jarhead says within this Maelstrom space.

“It’s about time Jarhead!” Fredricks shouts. "What took you so long!”

“I’ve been busy.”

”I’ve been trapped in here for five years!” the professor cries.

“Really? Has it been that long? But look I’m almost there.”

“My body wastes away and I am but a ghost in these realms," the presence laments. "I will choke the life from you yet!”

“Can you hold off on the choking?” Gator interrupts. “What’s going on with November?”

“November is involved with the Others." The professor switches focus. "Jarhead I need you to build me a device. A device to allow me to escape from this realm.”

“Yeah I’m trying.”

“Try harder!”

“Working on it,” Jarhead says. “It’s taken me five years to get this far. At least I’ve got helpers now who are competent.”

“If only I had a helper who had been competent.”

“Are you trying to ask for my help or not?” Jarhead asks, the cheer dropping from his voice.

“What Others?” Gator asks.

“The Others,” Sir Fredricks says. “The ones who have been in this realm far longer than me. Other minds, the ones that don’t sleep.”

“What does that mean?”

“The old ones, the ones from the Golden Age. They are still here. All of the infected, all of them. They linger in this realm. They live, dream, mumble, rave and scream. It’s horrible! Five years!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Jarhead says.

“The infected? All of them?” Gator asks. “I’m confused.”

“He’s talking about the old gods who control the infection,” Jarhead explains.

“The infection, they are the infection!” Fredricks raves.

“So they are the infection,” Jarhead says. “Climbers are gods. Wow, that’s not scary at all.”

The professor harrumphs. “You have no idea what you are talking about.”

“Why don’t you enlighten him?” Gator says.

“I could explain it…but you didn’t even put the safety protocols on that device!” Suddenly Jarhead is struck by Sir Fredricks’s rage. His limbs twitch out of his control for a moment before Jarhead thrusts the mad professor from his body.

“Let me out of here Jarhead! Let me out!” the professor rails.

“We are working on it,” Gator says calmly. “So what do you mean by ‘she’s working with the infected’? Is she infecting people? She’s helping the climbers?”

Sir Fredriks lowers his voice. “I told you she’s working with the old minds. They’re crazy. They’ve been here fifty years! Can you imagine what that would feel like? Fifty years without a body, without sensation. Hungering for the world.”

“But if they are the climbers then they are in the world.”

“Yes as a mindless fungus.”

“Then what is November doing?”

“She’s satisfying their base interests,” Fredericks says.

“They are crazy, they think they can get stronger by drinking blood. They are lost, hopelessly deranged.”

“How do we stop them?” Gator asks.

“Stop them?”

“You’ve been here five years. Have you been doing nothing in that whole time?” he admonishes.

“I’ve been trying to keep sane!" he exclaims. "Maybe we could build a weapon or doorway to attack them. But I need to get out of here. Jarhead you must help me.”

“Do you really have a body to go back to?” Jarhead says.

“I can still feel it faintly. Growing weaker and weaker by the day.“

“Who kept you alive?” the inventor asks. “It was Trista wasn’t it.”

“She loves me!” he cries.

“She’s just using you. That’s besides the point though.”

Gator puzzles over the information. “So we need to find someway to stop the gods. By building a door, which sounds like a bad idea. Or a weapon, which sounds like a good idea.”

Jarhead adds, “with a door…doors are not necessarily selective. I suggest a weapon.”

“Can you do that Jarhead?”

“I can when I’ve got some time.”

“What do you know about White Sir Fredricks?” Gator asks.

“He has unique abilities. He’s a freak! A prodigy,” the old man says. “Something about him is unnatural.”

“They say that about me too,” Jarhead says.

The professor addresses the mercenary. “Not unnatural like Jarhead’s unhinged mind or your scars. He was born different. His mother died of the climbers while he was in her womb.”

“So he’s infected and not infected?” Gator says.

“Something happened to his chromosomes, no one’s really sure. He projects into the maelstrom while remaining connected to the real world. It’s something none of the old minds understand so they fear him.”

“So the old gods fear him,” Jarhead puzzles. “November works for the old gods, and the old gods are bad, so does that mean November is bad?”

Gator stays silent, keeping his thoughts and November’s secrets to himself.

Violet watches Gator and Jarhead carefully as they mumble into thin air. The roar of engines pulls her gaze to the south.

A pair of motorcycles flank the Militia jeep as it pulls up to the gathering. While A.T. and Mox carefully climb out, Fire pulls her bike right next to them and dismounts.

“You made it out, good,” Fire says. “We need to act on this now. What’s Gator doing? Gator?”

While the teen waves a gauntleted hand in front of Gator’s face, Violet explains. “They are looking for information.”

“Now!?” Fire says, turning to face her. “We have more important things to be doing than looking into the freaking maelstrom. There’s bound to be another missile any time now.”

“True. Did you make it to the ship? Did you find out anything about the situation there?”

A.T. and Mox catch up to gathering as Fire fills her in. “I got to the holding nearest the ship. 711. The whole place was cleared out. Recently too. White must have grabbed the entire holding. I don’t know what happened to them but I expect we’ll be seeing them soon.”

November slips through the growing crowd of mercenaries, technicians and Militia. She whispers, “we’ve got to take White down.”

The topic threads through the crowd. “We need to move now,” Wire says.

“We need every man,” a soldier mutters.

“Somebody better wake up Gator,” Allison says.

“We don’t have time for this,” Fire says as she moves to shove Gator.

Violet shouts, “a full out assault is going to get everyone killed! We need to find a way to get on that ship without getting turned into swiss cheese by those machine guns. Give them some time.”

Fire glares at her. “Why don’t you shut up.”

Fire moves quickly, arm stretching out for a punch. November interposes herself, knocking the thuggish woman off balance. As the hot headed teen struggles to regain her footing, Violet rushes in and grapples her.

“Use your brain for once,” Violet says as she pulls fire’s arms behind her back. “You can’t stop White if you are dead.”

Caught in a bodylock, Fire fumes and struggles. “If you don’t fight you are useless anyway.”

“Shut the fuck up kid,” November says, her scarf knocked askew. “Listen to your betters.”

Violet looks up. “Hi there traitor. I deal with you in a second.”

As Fire quiets down, November tells Violet. “If you want to get on that ship, we have to get across the water and past the guns without being shot. We need a way to incapacitate the guns or make sure they don’t feel like they have to use them.”

Violet considers the options. “We pretend we are a delegation from the arena offering surrender. Then we get on board with concealed weapons.”

The Tesla sphere stops humming. Gator and Jarhead blink to awareness.

“Welcome back boys,” November says, her eyes on Gator. A.T. slips next to the scarred mercenary.

“This is unexpected,” Jarhead says watching as Fire fumes in Violet’s bear hug.

A.T. speaks up. “We were just discussing our options for getting onto the Big Ship

“Okay,” Gator says. “We have two options. One, we try to sneak on board. White is looking for a mechanic, a fix it person. So we could use Jarhead.” Jarhead sighs as he continues. “Some of us could get on board with him.”

As Gator considers the team roster, November offers, “I’m good with costumes.”

Gator gauges her warily but nods. “The other option is we sneak in under cover of darkness, which is going to be freaking hard.”

“We could always mount two prongs,” she suggests.

A.T. says, “we should send your team in first and have a second team to sneak in that night if you need backup.”

“I don’t know if you like me or dislike me the way you volunteer me for all sorts of things,” Jarhead mutters.

“You just have to look pretty,” Gator tells him. “You don’t have to do anything. Except build that weapon.”

“It’s not as simple as banging two rocks together,” he protests.

Gator eyes him. “Are you saying you can’t do it?”

“I can do it. It’s just going to take me some time.”

“You might notice we don’t have a whole lot of time right now,” Gator says forcefully. “White has missiles. And he knows how to aim them now.”

“Okay but how far can they reach?”

“Pretty fucking far.”

“And how well can he aim them?” the inventor asks looking to his van.

“Pretty fucking well.” Gator points at the smoke clad ruins behind them. “Can you see the Music Bowl

“Can we drive away fast enough?” Jarhead says.

“Probably not fast enough.”

The smaller man sighs. “If he can hit a moving target, I need to find out what he has. Anyway I need a big power source. Like a nuclear reactor.

“And I’m going to need her,” he says pointing at November. “We’ll need a lot of protection. The gods are not going to be happy about this killing the gods thing, they are going to try to stop it. And should we be talking about this in front of her?”

November shakes her head.

“I’m just going to go somewhere…else,” Jarhead says backpedaling toward his van.

A.T. looks at Jarhead’s helpers as they look on from the back of the van. “Do we want to bring more actual repair people beyond Jarhead?”

Jarhead turns and says, “ Memo you are staying here. Stay put. Stay.”

As she nods, he continues, “Let’s go Allison

“Okay,” she says. She follows him haltingly.

Gator glances at Morgana. “I need you watch over the others. Gremlin, you are also coming.”

The balding man stows his gear and joins the rest of the team: November, Gator, Jarhead, and Allison.

“A five man crew seems about right,” A.T. says. “More than that would seem suspicious.”

“I agree,” Violet says.

“That leaves the roles,” Gator says donning a gasmask. “I’m the muscle.”

“And I’m in training,’ November says.

A.T. and the Militia help them switch out their weapons and heavy armor. Gator leaves his MP5 behind and swaps his armor for something homemade. He carefully dissembles his sniper rifle and with Jarhead’s help disguises the pieces as repair equipment. November simply leaves her armor behind. She buys a bikini made of circuit boards from one of the refugees, a woman named Mercy. Clad in that and some scarves, she joins the others as they take the Militia’s jeep to the coast.

Violet jumps in Lily’s sidecar and the pair race north to the Autodoc

The Big Ship looms just offshore, tilted slightly and wedged in the sand. Gator pushes through the last of the overgrowth between them and the beach. Allison looks across the 200 feet of water to rusty hull, broken in places and covered in barnacles. Gremlin then takes the lead down to the rowboats as November and Jarhead scan the perimeter.

Slowly a pair of large guns on the top deck swivel in their direction.

“Are they going to shoot us?” Jarhead wonders.

“Not until we get out there,” she says pointing to the middle of the open water. “We’d better have a good story by then.

“Well we are a repair crew,” he says looking up the rusty hull.

She glances at the others. “A touch of weakness wouldn’t hurt. We’ll say we are refugees from the Music Bowl, surrendering and offering our services.”

The others nod. Gator and Gremlin get the boat off the sands and begin to row the others across. Gator lets his shoulders sag. He forces his gaze to the bottom of the boat. One of his paddles only lightly dips into the water as he feigns stiffness in that arm. Gremlin struggles to make up for the lack of balance.

A hundred feet out a loudspeaker blares, “What is your business?”

The paddling stops and November stands up carefully, her diaphanous scarves barely hiding her sensuous chocolate body.

“Please,” she cries. “We surrender to the mercy of White. We have skilled mechanics on board. We can not withstand White’s power. We offer our skills to help him build his empire.”

“Continue to paddle. Dock at the hole beneath the anchor chain.”

As the tin boat comes alongside the rusty hull, a pair of burlap clad men rush forward to hold it steady. The gash in the side opens into a large chamber decorated with rusty cages filled with weapons of various sorts. Gingerly November and the others climb out. They are greeted by four men training rifles on them.

“I’m feeling safer already,” the dancer says.

An old woman with an eye patch steps out from a dumbwaiter the size of a car on the far side of the room. “One at a time! Give up your guns. No fast movements. Got to check you and make sure there’s nothing fishy here.”

Two of the men move forward to confiscate their weapons. The taller one gives November a slow pat down while the other checks out Gator. He grabs her shotgun and hands it to one of his comrades.

“You’ll get that back after White clears you,” the woman says as they put it into one of the many cages.

“I guess I understand.” She looks at the storing area. “Oh wow! How many weapons do you have in there? Is that a cattle prod? I bet Jarhead could use that to make something really cool. For White.”

The man checking Gator turns his head. “That’s White’s call. These belong to somebody.”

The men grab Gator’s pistols as well as Allison’s worn 9mm. One of them pulls out Jarhead’s taser. “This is weird,” he says holding it with just his thumb and forefinger. “I’ve never seen one of these. I’m just going to put this down carefully and hope it doesn’t explode.”

“Damn right you are going to handle it carefully,” Jarhead mutters.

The old woman waves them to the elevator. Gator picks up his box of tools and follows the others on.

The orange light of sunset strikes them as they reach the deck. In front of them a massive machine gun emplacement watches the shore. Behind tin roofed stalls cover the top deck, home to a bustling crowd.

A hairy man dressed in just a pair of jeans walks up. “I’m Lion he says, one hand wiping the sweat from his bald head. “I’m going to talk to White about you guys. I think he’ll want to put you to work pretty soon. So if you want to get some grub I suggest you get it now. Shouldn’t be hard to find you afterwards but I’ll send Cass here to be your guide just in case.”

A scrawny 10 year old hurries over. As he skids to a halt in front of them, he pulls off his hat made from melted plastic bottles revealing a third nostril on his face.

November steps forward and grabs the deformed child’s hand. “Why don’t Cass and I get some food for us and I’ll be back.”

“Yeah there’s a guy who makes great fried shrimp over this way,” Cass says leading her away.

November’s disguise work melts beneath Gator’s mask in the muggy air. He checks the crowd but no one spares him a second glance.

Allison speaks first. “So should we go meet with Violet’s friend or wait for Lion?”

Kim could be useful,” Gator says.

“I think Violet said she was this way.” The blond woman stops after a couple steps. “Though I’ve never been here before.”

“I have. It’s a good place to get anything you need.”

Gator leads them quickly to the front of an empty shop. A woman a bit older than Violet lounges on the front step, smoking something fragrant.

The emaciated woman looks up as they approach. “Strangers! I haven’t seen too many of those recently. Any word from the outside?”

“Some,” Gator says peering past her at the empty shelves. “We know Violet.”

The woman’s eyes narrow and she straightens up. “Maybe we should talk inside.”

They nod and Kim leads them into the back of the shop. Empty shelves and few crude baskets decorate the interior.

“You’re friends of Violet?” she asks.

“Yes, we are here on her behalf,” Gator says.

A fly buzzes past Kim in the hot still air. “I haven’t heard anything from her since that fellow came by with a letter.”

“That fellow was one of my gang.”

“OK. So how’s she doing?”

Gator looks away. “She’s been better.”

“Slight understatement,” Jarhead mumbles.

“Her mission is the same,” he says.

Kim looks at their boots. “So you came from the city. What happened with that missile?”

“The Music Bowl is pretty much gone.”

“Damn,” she says sliding up against a wall.

“So here’s the deal,” Gator says. “We need to know what you know about White and his movements.”

“Sure, sure,” she says as she runs a hand through her black hair. “Last week or so, he’s been really busy with things. He’s grabbed people, people who couldn’t do anything else. We haven’t seen them. I’ve heard stories though. He’s been looking for a way to get the missiles working. Obviously it works. They said he needed people to do the navigation.”

“OK, does he ever leave his.” Gator searches for a word. “Stronghold.”

“He used to spend a lot of time up in the tower,” she says, one slender figure pointing up and to the left. “But the last day or so, he’s been down below. His men came back with thirty or so people, marched them all down below. Men. Women. Children. I think they came from 711

“I heard about that.”

“Anyway, he took them downstairs. He came up to give some orders and scare some people but hasn’t been up since. He’s a creepy kid.”

“Wait a kid?” Jarhead asks.

“Yes. White’s like five foot. He’s twelve or something. Horribly scarred too.”

As the information sinks in, she continues, “he doesn’t show himself too much but he’s had to since his henchmen left. I don’t know what happened to them but he got really mad so I assume something bad.”

“That could be a good assumption,” Gator says. “So if something happened up on deck, he would have to handle it personally?”

“Yeah if his men couldn’t deal with it immediately. He used to have Cougar to knock sense into people. Now he just has a couple people that he’s done stuff to,” she says shaking slightly. “You know what I mean. The ones that he’s dosed. That’s what I think he’s doing to those people. He’s dosing all of them. I don’t know why he needs so many of them though.”

Gator looks out a window, scanning the crowd. “We are looking to cause a ruckus. What’s our best shot?”

Kim taps her chin. “We are isolated here. Unless it comes in by boat we don’t get food or supplies. There’s a lot of sick people, a lot of hungry people. There’s a gang that call themselves the Deadlights that got stranded here. They’ve got some weird creepy cult thing going. They’re particularly unhappy. Cougar put the fear in them before he left but they are spoiling for a fight.”

“Good to know,” the big mercenary says. He looks at Jarhead. “I think we need to get November to talk to them.”

Jarhead nods. “I agree with you.”

Gator turns back to Kim. “Thanks, I suggest you hole up.”

“If you guys are going to cause trouble I’ll make myself scarce.”

Lily and Violet shoot pass a slow stream of people on their way north. Men on foot, children in chugging carts, several women on rusty motorcycles. They find the Autodoc already clogged with arrivals. A team of nurses readies gurneys in the atrium for the coming crush.

Violet tromps past the empty beds to the front desk, taking a place behind a man with a broken arm and a woman bleeding from her eye.

After a half hour, she manages to talk to a familiar nurse in denim patched scrubs.

“I know you don’t I?” the older woman says.

Violet places the face. Madame from the Music Bowl. “It may be hard to tell but it’s Violet.”

“What happened?”

Violet runs over the recent events. As she reaches her trip into the tunnels beneath the arena, the nurse pales slightly. She waves over an orderly. “Okay move her to quarantine.”

Three hours later, Violet rubs her arm from the blood sampling, inoculations, and other tests. Memo’s device almost subsides into silence as she stares at the same four walls.

The door opens.

Madame walks in with an easy smile. “We did the tests and looks like your immune system managed to fight off the fungus. Other than the hole in your head you are fine.” The levity drops from her voice. “We could take care of your face but it will take time. We do have the AI up and running, under control. If you want faster treatment that is an option.”

“I think I’ll take the slower route,” Violet says.

“Alright I’ll send someone to start treatment once we are able. A lot of the wounded won’t make the night without help.”

Jarhead slows to a crawl as the bustling crowd fills up the space between him and the others. He shifts and jumps around looking for a way past the woman with no ears or perhaps around the old men haggling over a spent artillery shell.

A shadow falls over him.

Jarhead finds himself face down on the ground. He looks up. The monstrous figure’s wide brim hat blots out the dying sun. From the seven foot freak’s headgear, a dozen light bulbs hang.

“Hey watch where you are going?” the willowy giant says.

“I was standing here not moving,” he protests. “Specifically not moving,”

“So you saying you got in my way on purpose.” Two smaller men come up behind the giant. A necklace of LEDs adorns the younger one’s neck, while the eye of the other, a pasty pig of man, glows a creepy electric purple.

Jarhead spots Gator behind him. He whispers, “I think this guy is going to want to hurt me.”

Lafferty, are they are causing problems for you,” the one eyed man asks the giant.
Gator moves in front of Jarhead as the crowd begins to make room for the large dangerous figures. “Move along.”

Lafferty eyes this new figure, trying to spot his eyes behind the glass of his gasmask.

“Alright.” He points at Jarhead. “You know your place. Give tribute to the Deadlights.”

“Deadlights!” the goons at his back cheer. Lafferty turns and they start to move off.

“Dead bulbs more like it,” Jarhead mutters in a low voice.
Allison helps Jarhead up. “Aren’t those the guys you wanted to cause trouble with?” she asks Gator.

Gator nods. “You the deadlights?” he calls out.

The men stop. Laffert turns. “Yes.”

Gator approaches hands out as the crowd gives them even more space. Lafferty looks down on the mercenary.

“I hear you don’t like the way things are going,” Gator says.

One of the bulbs on the giant’s hat clinks against another. “I don’t like being stuck on a hot. Tin. Boat.”

“You going to do something about it?”

Lafferty searches through Gator’s lenses. “You know something I don’t?”

“I hear you caused some trouble before,” he says calmly.

“Yes, they’ll come up here plenty quick,” the cultist says as a frown curls across his face.

“But I also know he doesn’t have anybody to back him up anymore. Think, you could be taking a kid.”

Lafferty looks out to horizon and back to Gator. “I think it might be worth more handing troublemakers over to him than starting trouble myself.” In the fading light he finally finds something within the darkness of Gator’s mask. “I know who you are.”

Lafferty shouts out, “we’ve got intruders! Gator’s here!”

Jarhead quickly pulls a pouch from his belt. He drops it, spilling screws, nuts and bolts in all directions. “You guys like technology? Whoops!”

In the chaos, Gator disappears into the crowd. Gremlin struggles to follow his boss but runs into the crowd. They push him back. As he topples onto his butt, Jarhead crawls out of the ring of onlookers, squeezing past their legs.

The jeers of the crowd get November’s attention. With the crowds of the market and the promise of food, she’d easily lost Cass. But this new noise could be trouble. Craning her neck she sees a huge man shouting.

“We’ve got intruders! Gator’s here!”

The dancer’s eyes flick to the roofs of the shacks that line the market. With a quick jump, she grabs the warm metal roof and hoists herself up on top. She pulls some extra scarves from her pouch wrapping them around her body as she makes her way to the edge.

Elsewhere Gator pulls out his box of parts. He snaps his sniper rifle together as he hops from crate to roof to a higher roof, grabbing a poncho as he goes.

At the edge, November sees into the ring the spectators have made around the three light bulb adorned men. The one with a fake eye pulls Allison off her feet, kicking and screaming. Gremlin circles the second figure warily while Lafferty looks on. Gremlin produces a punch dagger with an odd bulge in the blade and barbed edges. His foe waves a serrated knife menacingly.

November begins to sing loudly. As eyes draw toward her, she dances, slowly pulling her scarves off one by one. Soon the crowd and combatants are focused on her and not her allies.

Gator meanwhile brings his rifle to bear on the elevator hatch into the depths of the ship. Luckily someone left it open. He lines up a shot and bullseyes a sign partway down the shaft. That should bring them running up here.

Back in the circle, Gremlin uses the distraction to plant his dagger into his opponent. He tumbles away as November reveals one leg.

The explosion from his weapon barely causes the crowd to flinch from November’s performance as she reveals first one arm and then another.

Gremlin grabs the serrated knife and stabs it into the other goon’s face. As he goes gurgling down, Allison runs for it.

November pulls the final scarf from her midriff, leaving her with only the circuit board bikini to work with as Gremlin struggles to wrench the knife free from the dead man’s skull. She fixes her eyes on Lafferty’s and winks.

By the back of the crowd, Jarhead stumbles out from under some legs. The holdings electric lights hold back the growing darkness for a moment before Jarhead conveniently snags a key power cable with his foot and shorts out the whole place.

Several people pull their gaze from November silhouetted form and catch a glimpse of him. Then the elevator rises from below. A mass of guards comes with it. The armed men press into the crowd, breaking it up with iron bars and leather clad bats.

In his snipers perch, Gator peers through his night optics. He waits as the gang spreads out, revealing their child dictator.

Then he fires.

The bullet takes White in the throat. The boy crumples, arterial blood splattering his men. As they move to protect him, Gator turns to face the other conflict.

November’s final scarf floats to the market floor as Lafferty grabs Gremlin by the arm, wrenching the dagger from his hand. With his other arm, the towering man raises an blood stained axe.

Gator’s boots slam into the corrugated roof and move on before the bowed metal collapses. As Lafferty’s axe reaches its apex, Gator knocks Gremlin aside with one arm. The other deflects the axe into the top deck.

Gator pulls a knife from a wrist holster, jamming it into the giant’s arm with a sickening crack. Lafferty falls back on his ass, cursing through his teeth.

“There’s no need for this anymore,” Gator announces. “White’s dead.”

The guards slow their progress and glance back to their leader. A man in a bloody suit looks up and shakes his head slowly.

“I don’t know if I want to fight anymore,” one of them murmurs.

“I hear Gator can kill, like 12 of us alone, unarmed,” a youth offers.

As the opposition dissolves, November joins the others.

“Let’s get to the lift,” Gator says.

As they lower the lift the Militia and Gator’s gang emerges from the ruins to establish order on the Big Ship.

Violet stares at the ceiling for the tenth hour. Relentless fluorescent light illuminates her windowless chamber in perpetual day. She stretches, fending off the stiffness in her limbs.

Someone screams.

Violet bolts upright. Without hesitation she enters the hall. Nurses rush past.

“It’s an attack from the Big Ship someone calls out.

“Climbers!” a woman shouts.

Violet turns her head. The exit light above the staircase glows green. She mounts the steps two at a time.

Before the Night of Fire

Jarhead removes the final bandages from Fuse’s torso.

“Well I owe you one,” the spikey haired mercenary says.

“Yes, yes you do,” Jarhead says as he turns to his other patient.

The worn old man lies on a gurney, breathing slow but regular. The leader of the Militia is healthy but his mind refuses to wake up. Jarhead scratches his goatee as his helpers return from their latest search.

“She’s nowhere in the Music Bowl Allison says as her brother nods beside her.

He nods absently, distracted by the readout on the machine beside A.T.

Elsewhere November slips past the knots of worried refugees into the arena. Her play at searching for Violet seems to be working but with the missile strike there are bigger concerns. Though not as big as mine, she thinks to herself, keeping her thoughts from her patrons, “the gods”.

Gator and his band of mercenaries trudge out of the ruins. Ahead the Music Bowl looms over a field of rubble and concrete. Hundreds of refugees cluster in its shadow while on one end a crude roller coaster rumbles.

Gator glances behind him where smoke still rises in the distance from yesterday’s missile impact. “Let’s find Jarhead he tells his gang. Together they march across the no man’s land.

As they near the arena, a young woman with a gray dog intercepts them.

“Gator, where have you been?” Lily Miami asks as Exit stands close to his master.

“I was at the Autodoc he says. His shadow partially covers the dark haired woman as he begins to move past her.

“Have you seen Violet she asks grabbing him with a sleeveless arm.

Gator stops. “No, I thought she was here.”

“She disappeared a few days ago,” she explains. “ Boo and the rest went to the Autodoc to see if she went there.”

Gator glances north. A dark cloud continues to rise from the ruins.“We were taking a roundabout way here. I didn’t see her. It would be good to find her. We need to pick up the pace on White

She follows his eyes. “That explosion, you know what it was?”

“A rocket landing.”

Her eyes widen. “A rocket? You mean like a missile? Shit. We’ve got to find Violet.”

“Where’s her people?” he asks.

”Some of us are still here, the rest went to the Autodoc. We’ve got a radio set up if news comes in.”

“You should be fine then. Who is in charge now?” he asks/

“We’re a republican democracy,” she explains.

“So who’s in charge?”

She puts her hands on her hips. “We haven’t elected a representative yet.”

“Alright then. I’ll talk to somebody, at some point, and find out where you are at. It sounds really really efficient.”

“Hey! At least our system is fair.”

“My system works right now,” he says as Wire shoves Lily aside.

“You said we had people to see, Gator?” the older mercenary asks.

“Yes.” Gator leads them into the Music Bowl.

Down in the foundry, November mingles with the Militia members keeping a vigil byA.T.’s bedside. Nearby Jarhead works on some strange medical equipment. The steel doors open and Shadow and Fuse raise their weapons.

Gator strides in, his hardened warriors shuffling in behind him. As Jarhead’s guards relax, the tinkerer turns and exclaims, “Hey Gator good to see you!”

November moves in to give Gator a hug. The burly killer tenses up and the dancer manages to embrace him.

As she pulls away he says, “Hey November.”

“Hey,” she smiles.

“What’s going on here?” he asks. “What’s the hubbub?”

“Good to see you,” she says and glances to the infirmary.”We need to move on White soon but nobody can find Violet and A.T. is still down.”

“Yeah I heard that.”

“I suggested some of her people go to the Autodoc she explains without the slightest tell. “That’s the only place I can think of.”

Jarhead wanders up to them. “That’s interesting, have you seen all the cool equipment I’ve got now?”

As he begins to enthusiastically showing off his new gear, a woman with red mohawk breaks into their conversation. “Hey you are the leader of this band of mercenaries, right?”

“The Free Company,” he corrects her.

”Whatever,” Vega says. “Did your mercs knocked over one of our transports?”

“They wouldn’t have done anything that wasn’t a job,” he says.

“So you are saying, they did do it,” she accuses.

Gator’s people begin to slide their hands to their weapons while the Militia begins to encircle Vega. November slips her hand to the straps holding on her armor.

Gator gauges the situation as a bead of sweat makes its way down Vega’s temple. Twelve to five assuming Jarhead and November don’t jump in to help. I could scare her but that doesn’t help my business.

Vega makes a tactical choice. “You’re lucky that A.T. is out or we’d take you down where you stand.”

Gator notes her eyes don’t flick to her boss. Someone else is scarier to her. Probably Fire from the talk.

“Here’s how it is going to go down,” he explains. “You are going to settle down. Your boy over there, A.T., is looking a little worse for wear. Unless you want the fallout from whoever it is who takes over when he dies, you should just let it drop.”

Vega nods curtly and steps back. “Okay. We’ve got to focus on getting the boss back up, then we can sort all of that out. Jarhead where are we at with all of that!”

Jarhead looks up from his poking at the old man’s head. “Um. Give me one second.”

Jarhead reaches out with his mind. It finds something. He pulls on that thread and it pulls back dragging him with it. The dark skinned man pales slightly and topples face first onto the concrete floor.

Allison rushes over to him. As she checks his pulse, she says, “he must not have recovered from drilling into his own head.”

“What?” Gator and November say.

Allison she looks up at them. “A few days ago back, before A.T. came in here, he did some surgery on himself. See the bandages here. It fixed the damage to his brain from what happened in the Autodoc.”

As Gator and the others consider what to do, November looks at Jarhead’s van and the strange artifact inside.

The sun beats down on Violet as she scrambles through the broken streets of Miami. Her head pounds with the heat and horrific damage just south of her left eye. Beyond the distraction of the pain however she moves quick and sure over the rough terrain.

After mounting a mound of bricks, she glances south. The arena remains hidden by the trees and debris but dark smoke continues to rise from nearby. Absently she scratches her arm, the disease working its way into her flesh. She tries to think back to what happened but finds only fragments. Darkness. Pain. Betrayal.

She climbs down the hill and along a deserted street. A few lamp posts lean this way and that, weighed down by the withered corpses atop them.

Then she hears something moving up the hill of bricks behind her. Quickly she ducks down an alley and circles back.

A few moments later she looks down at a slight girl in a hospital gown following the path she just took. She calls down to the dark haired child.

Memo jumps for a moment and then turns. “I found you.”

Violet slides down a broken wall to Jarhead’s ward. “You were looking for me?”

“Yes I need your help,” the girl says her eyes unbothered by Violet’s wound.

“What for?”

“I need you to get Jarhead out of the Music Bowl she says pulling on her long hair. “It’s not safe for him there.”

“Why not?” Violet asks, studying the strange child.

“Something bad is going to happen there,” she says as she tugs her hair across her front of face.

Violet glances around them, feeling for any watchers. The ruins remain quiet except for the sounds of nature. But something hovers at the edge of sensation, some psychic presence watching quietly and without malice.

Relieved if only partially, Violet asks, “how much danger is he in? Is it something immediate?”

“We need to move him soon,” Memo whines.

“How soon? Next hour, next day?”

“I don’t know how long,” she says. “Soon. If he’s there for a few days he may never leave.”

Violet looks north sharply and instantly regrets the decision.

“I need your help,” Memo says scrutinizing the wounded woman. “If you need something maybe I can help you with that.”

“If you can help me with the climbers she sighs.

Memo scrunches her eyes for a moment. “Uh I guess I can help you with that.”

“Good luck.”

Memo looks around quickly. “I can do something, we can come up with something, we can do something. Yes. To stop the climbers.”

As Memo digs into a wrecked car, Violet tries to figure out this strange child. She seems sincere but can she really stop the climbers?

Memo pops out the other side of the car. “We can make something to help you. But we’ll need some wire and a battery.”

“Wire?” Violet asks scratching her arm. “How would that work?”

“It will work,” she says ducking back inside. “We just need some wire, a battery and some bits of metal.”

Violet peers inside the dingy wreck. “So what are you trying to do? How will it work? Humor me, Just walk me through it.”

Memo appears with a rusted radio in her hands. “It will slow it down, It will um.” Her voice suddenly switches to monotone. “It will create an an electromagnetic field with interferometric properties that will disrupt human beta waves. Tuned to precisely to 440 Hz, it can then disrupt remote synaptic triggering by foreign gestalt intelligences.”

Who is this child? Violet thinks as the girl rattles off instructions like that old instruction manual she read as a child.

Memo takes a deep breath at the end of speech. “So I’ll make this and then you’ll help me get Jarhead out of the Music Bowl?”

“Uh, yes, but after that we need to go straight to the Autodoc

“Sure, sure,” she says grinning widely.

In the foundry, Gator glances at Allison and Waters. The two youths gently shake him but Jarhead stubbornly remains unconscious. With some effort they pull the skinny man up onto a gurney.

Gator notices no one else moving to do something. “Damn, we need him awake.”

As he steps forward, November slips behind the crowd into the van.

Gator shakes the tinkerer. “Wake up, Jarhead. Wake up!”

Then he slaps him.

Jarhead blinks and steadies himself. Looking down, his feet rest on fresh asphalt. Then he hears the screams.

He glances around. He finds himself on a street, one untouched by the apocalypse. Besides the broken windows, the buildings suffer no structural damage. Down the road a car burns while people rush past. Distant skyscrapers stand unmarred. Movement draws his eyes to the roof to his left where a crowd of people climb up the side and out of windows, seeking the highest point with a dazed look in their eyes.

Another knot mobilizes behind him, attempting to scale a street lamp. It’s the day of the Climbers! he thinks. This is about to become a very hazardous area in few minutes.

As he turns, he notices a young boy beside him. Tears leak from the five year old’s pale blue eyes. Without thinking Jarhead grabs the child and runs.

“Daddy!!” the boy screams.

“Quiet kid!” Jarhead says shushing him.

As he begins to make some distance, the scene shifts suddenly. He finds himself in the wilderness, miles from civilization. Around him armed men and women practice shooting at straw targets across a forest meadow.

The boy stands taller besides him, several years older and dressed in padded vest and some jeans. As Jarhead calms down, a man hands the child a gun.

“Alright, Alex aim at the target down there,” the mustached man says.

These are memories, Jarhead realizes. I’m in the Psychic Maelstrom.

He scans the his surroundings. Above the trees round blue mountain rise. The Appalachians don’t tell him where he is except somewhere between Arkansas and New York.

He turns to the man. “What’s going on here?”

As he guides the boy Alex’s aim, the man explains. “Training. We’ve got to be ready if more infected come by.”

Jarhead appraises Alex’s rifle. The shiny new weapon dwarfs the youth. “What year is this?”

The man looks up at him. “Year? Its 20-”

Suddenly a hiss drowns out the man’s voice and Jarhead’s surroundings turn fuzzy. The ground shakes and everything turns to water for a moment. What is the Maelstrom trying to show me here? he wonders. How do I get out of here?

As things return to normal, Jarhead realizes no one has taken notice. “Where are we?”

“Tennessee,” the man says. “About of 100 miles from where Memphis used to be.”


“Yeah before they burned it down.”

“That’s pretty cool,” Jarhead says with a smile. “I wonder if I can go over there and check it out?”

He concentrates on Memphis for a moment.

Suddenly he finds himself surrounded by flames. Heat burns his right cheek. I regret this decision, I want to go back, he panickedly decides.

Suddenly the heat fades from around him except from the pain on his right cheek. Gator’s calloused hand holds him up while the other readies for a second slap.

“Ow! I was in Memphis,” Jarhead shouts. “Man it was hot. Where’s Alex?”

“Who?” Mox says leaning in.

Jarhead’s mind suddenly puts the pieces together. He turns to the slumbering man on the gurney. A.T.’s eyes remain closed, his pale blue eyes hidden.

“Hold on, I got an idea,” he says and heads for his van.

Meanwhile November slips into the back of Jarhead’s van unseen. Carefully she picks up Jarhead’s strange sphere and begins to twist the knobs and dials he’s attached to it. The device begins to glow a faint green and a hum surrounds her.

November calls out to Gator, her voice echoing distantly through the maelstrom.

Gator turns, letting Jarhead slide back to the gurney unslapped. “Hey Gator come over here,” November says softly.

He wander to the van, dazed and slightly unsteady. He tries to shake out the cobwebs of his mind but feels a wrenching instead. Everything seems straight but also at an angle. He lurches into the van to sit down.

As he settles down, November slips up beside him, a soft glow surrounding her. ‘Gator I don’t know how much longer we can talk. Whatever is driving the climbers is inside my brain.”

Distantly Gator’s voice reaches them. “Wake up, Jarhead. Wake up!”

November hurriedly continues. “I’ve made a deal with them so I know what’s going on. But under normal circumstances they can hear everything I say. I had to kill Cougar."

The sound of a slap interrupts her as Jarhead cries, “Ow!”

“I don’t have much longer. I had to kill Cougar and Violet came across me and was going to kill me,” she babbles. “I returned fire before I knew who she was. I don’t know what’s become of her. I’m immune to the climbers now.”

“Where’s Alex?” Jarhead asks outside.

“Because of what they can do. They’re serious. I don’t know what else to do. I can’t hold this anymore,” she says as the sphere vibrates in her hands.

“Hold on I’ve got an idea,” Jarhead says.

“What do you intend to do?” Gator quickly asks.

“I need your help taking these guys down,” she pleads.


“The omnipresent psychic maelstrom creatures, they call themselves the gods she says nervously.

Then Jarhead opens up the van. Gator stands behind him and stares in disbelief at November and…himself. The moment of paradox collapses in an instant. Jarhead blinks and Gator stands behind him. The second Gator is nowhere to be seen.

November gently lets go of the Tesla sphere. “Oh good. You are better. I was thinking we’d have to contact with you with the sphere.”

Jarhead narrows his eyes. She might be happy to see me but there’s something she’s not telling me about the sphere.

Carefully he picks it up and cradles it his arms, his eyes never leaving her. As she tries to shrug it off with a smile, he says, “let’s not be touching other’s inventions again.”

She nods and glances over his shoulder at Gator.

“Jarhead,” Gator says.

“What do you want?” he says turning.

“What do you know about Sir Fredricks

Jarhead stumbles. ‘That’s an interesting name, “ he says hastily. “Where’d you hear that one from?”

Jarhead’s eyes flick to November but she can’t read him before he turns back to Gator.

“An old buddy of mine said he was sent by Sir Fredricks,” Gator explains.”He apparently needs to talk to you.“

“Your buddy, he knows him how?” Jarhead asks.

Gunge he clarifies. “He’s dead.”

“Why are dead friends talking to you?” the thin man says, the corner of his eye twitching. “Does this happen often to you?”


“You don’t often meet your dead friends?” he asks. “Are these friends dead because you killed them or-”

Gator cuts him off. “I think you’re deflecting. Number one, I actually didn’t kill Gunge, I tried to save him. Number two, you obviously know who Sir Fredricks is. So here’s the deal, there’s two people who can talk to him right now and somebody’s going to do it. One is you and the other is on the Big Ship

Jarhead strokes his goatee. “Hmm, that may be very bad. For everyone.”

“So you going to have the conversation?” he asks.

Jarhead runs his hands through his hair. “Ugh, this is not going to go easy. I guess if I’ve gotta. Do you know where Sir Fredricks is?”

“He said you knew how to find him.”

“Damn it,” he says. He turns to A.T. “Let me do this first. Argh. I don’t think I can take you.” He pauses. “Can I take him? Maybe.”

Jarhead shelves that thought and approaches his patient. He adjusts the knobs of the sphere and reaches out to A.T.

Memo twists the last coil of wire and holds up the odd device to Violet. It looks like a set of bed springs married a rubix cube. “We still need a battery though,” she says.

“Let’s look for one,” Violet replies.

A half hour later they spot a ruined hardware store. Glancing inside, mostly bare shelves greet them. A few tools and supplies remain however. Violet scans an empty battery section before pressing on to the rear of the store. As she tosses aside some debris from the auto section, muffled conversation drifts in from outside.

Quickly she grabs an intact car battery just as several strangers enter the shop. She waves Memo to stay down and glances up into the dingy bowl mirror above her. The green fatigues and well displayed weapons make it clear these are Militia.

A familiar voice shouts, “make sure there’s nothing left here. Make it quick, we’ve got places to be. Those missiles are not going to stop falling.”

In the mirror the dark haired woman stand in the entrance, her bulky armor all but announcing her.

Violet slowly rises and calls out. “ Fire is that you?”

Several guns turn toward her direction.

“Stop, who’s there?” Fire commands. “Who’s that?”

“Violet,” she says keeping her hands where they can see them.

“What are you doing in here?” the lieutenant of the Militia asks.

“It’s complicated. I’m not in a good way right now. So please don’t shoot me.” She gestures to Memo who holds up the battery. “It’s just me and the girl here. We only came in here for a battery.The rest is yours. We’ve got to get back to the Music Bowl

The scowling woman appraises Violet. “You were not kidding when you said you were in a bad way. Who did that?”

“I’m still trying to figure out the particulars myself,’ she says, keeping her fingers from scratching. “The situation was … complicated.”

“You’ve been to the Music Bowl recently?” Fire asks, rubbing at a few minor cuts on her face.

“Last I heard there was a prison breakout. I went looking for Cougar because,” she trails off. “Well I found someone who killed her. We fought and the next thing I know I’m lying on the floor like I am now. I was headed for the Autodoc but it seems I’m needed at the arena. If you see any of the other Republicans could you let them know.”

She chuckles. “Yeah I’ll let them know.”

Violet’s voice hardens. “I think I’ll have a few things to straighten out.”

Fire looks her in the eyes, “I think if it happened to me, I straighten things a little bit faster.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” Violet says, moving closer.

Fire flippantly waves a hand. “Right but the little girl needs your help or whatever. Take your battery and go.”

“Thank you.”

As the pair exit, Fire stops her. “One thing. You haven’t seen those mercs around?”

“Not for four or five days.”

Fire nods. “Thanks. We’re heading south to deal with missiles. Who knows when he’ll fire again.”

Violet locks eyes with the young woman. “Get him good for me will ya.”

Fire smiles and cracks her knuckles. “Oh sure, looking forward to it,”

Once outside, Memo hooks up the battery. Instantly, Violet feels a buzzing in her head like an angry wasp. The pair head west.

As the strange sphere hums and glows, Jarhead whispers, “Alex come on back.”

November mingles with the Militia members as they look on, watching Gator as he hangs back with his mercenary band.

Jarhead’s words reverberate, echoing in the minds of those present. Outside, those in the arena look up wondering who just said Alex. In the wastes beyond, Violet hears a name whispered behind her. Across Miami, heads turn to the west.

A.T.’s eyes blink open.

“That worked?" Jarhead asks. "Of course it works.”

A.T. shifts his head. “Where am I?”

Mox leans over him. “Boss, you’re in the foundry at the Music Bowl. We’ve got a guy here who managed to patch you up. You are going to be OK.”

As Jarhead congratulates himself, the Militia swarm past him to greet their returned leader. He pouts and wanders over to his helpers. “Don’t you think I was awesome Allison

She quickly puts on a smile. “Yeah, you brought someone back from a coma. That’s pretty impressive right?”

“Impressive,” he says smiling and surveying the workshop. “See someone else do that. Did you find Memo?”

She shakes her head. “No I haven’t been able to find here. She’s not here. I don’t know where she is. I’m worried she wandered off into the wilds. There could be radioactive boars out there.”

“I knew I should have chipped all of you,” he says.

“Chipped? What’s that mean?”

He shrugs. “It’s an idea I’ve been working on, you’ll find out. Maybe.”

After a short while, the crowd begins to mobilize. Mox helps A.T. to his feet and they begin to shuffle out. The giant man claps Jarhead on the shoulder. “Thanks.”

The scrawny man smiles. “Glad to be of service, goodbye!”

Nearby Gator’s gang start shuffling their feet and looking for something to do.

“Shouldn’t we find some place to rest," Morgana asks. "I don’t know if we should stick around the Music Bowl with missiles flying around.”

“One minute,” Gator says as he moves to intercept A.T. He catches the old man by the doors.“A.T.”

“Gator,” the mustached man says warily.

“I understand you were looking for me.”

A.T. straightens up. “Yes, about a little mystery about some missing weapons.”

“There was a little misunderstanding while I was indisposed,” Gator explains. “So I wanted to see where you are headed. I’m okay leaving it as it is.”

A.T. frowns. “Some good men of mine died defending those supplies.”

November slides up to the men as Gator says. “How about I give some in recompense.”

“What sort?” he asks warily.

“I got one of the guys who did the job.”

November whispers a sweet word in A.T.’s ear and the older man loses his frown. “I’ll take that man, but I also need to know where those weapons went.”

November glances at Gator. in his moment of hesitation, she says, “we don’t have time for squabbling. You need to take the offer.”

“You’re right,” A.T. sighs. “There’s those missiles. We need to deal with that now.”

Gator nods. ”We need to get Violet and her crew together and we need to do this.”

“I’ll mobilize my men outside.” A.T. says. “If you find Violet you can tell her where to find us.”

Road gives only a brief struggle before the Militia take him away. A.T. mutters something to Mox about joining the tribunal with him and Fire as they exit the foundry. Gator rallies the rest of his men and directs them to make camp well outside the arena. He also instructs the others to radio the Autodoc to see if they found Violet.

Then he and November talk to Jarhead about some treatment for their wounds.

“I’m going to need some payment,” the wondermaker says.

November offers him her tablet and Gator pulls some barter from his bag of gear. Jarhead turns to his supplies.

“I can do a patch job. It’s not going to be pretty and there will be some consequences down the line,” he tells them.

“What sort of consequences Jarhead?” November asks.

“Some feelings of sickness and exhaustion,” he says mixing up some chemicals. “For speed, sacrifices must be made. You’ll be fine for tomorrow but expect to crash the next day.” He turns around with a needle filled with a purplish fluid. “Up to you guys.”

Gator considers their timeline. “Can you do it on the way?”

“I guess. Where’s Memo

The ruined arena rises up ahead. Memo tugs on Violet’s sleeve as they quickly walk to Music Bowl.

“We have to go now! Now! there’s no time!” she repeats. Violet and she break out into a run.

“What is it that’s coming?” Violet asks as they approach the huddled mass of tents and refugees.

“Something really bad is going to happen,” the child gasps, white gown flapping in the evening breeze. “Really really bad.”

“Is it just Jarhead who is trouble?” she asks.

“I don’t know, we should get Jarhead out.”

A motorcycle roars up to them. Lily pulls it to a halt and asks, “Where have you been Violet? We’ve been looking for you for days. What happened to you? What happened to your face?”

Violet tries to walk around the bike. “Let’s get inside.”

Lily grabs her. “No I want an answer now. What happened to you?”

“I got shot in the face, can’t you tell!” she shouts, trying to pull free.

“When, how, by whom?”

Memo grabs Violet’s other arm. “We’ve got to go now!”

Violet fixes her good eye on Lily. “Look I got an upset kid who needs me, I’ve been shot in the face, there’s a good chance I’ve got the climbers, I’m in a bad way! We’ll get this straightened out when I get this taken care of!”

Lily lets go and swallows. “Alright, hop on. I’ll drive you in.”

The pair climb into her sidecar. “To Jarhead,” Violet orders.

A knock disturbs November as she settles down in her private room within the arena. She goes to door.

Outside Wisher puts on his most gracious smile. “I have a wonderful gift for you. I’d love for you to see it. Can you come?”

“I was just getting my things together but sure,” she says. “Where is it?”

“It’s just down by the concessions,” gesturing down the hall.

“So what going on?” she asks wondering about his true motives.

As they head down the hallway, he explains. “I was hoping to get your help and perhaps your advice. There’s a project I want your assistance with once the current trouble dies down.”

As she opens her mouth to ask another question, a chill runs up her spine. Insistent whispers hiss, “leave him now, move to the nearest exit.”

Thinking quickly she changes the subject. “Wisher, you know what? There’s something I’d like to show you.”

“What is it?”

She turns for the stairs nearest the exterior. “I’ve been thinking about this performance I want to do. It involves these tree frogs. I think I could get them to sing in chorus.”

As she babbles she hurries him outside and away from the arena.

The rumble of the motorcycle fills the tunnel to the foundry. Lily pulls to a stop.

“We should probably knock,” she suggests. “The last guys came in here uninvited got really banged up.”

“That wouldn’t surprise me,” Violet says.

Memo points to narrow passageway to the left. ““We can go through this way, there’s a hole in the wall.”

Violet dismounts the bike and follows the strange girl into the dark.

“Look out for the trap,” the child warns partway through.

Stepping over some tripwires, Violet passes a familiar crate. Memo crouches near some poorly placed cinderblocks. “These blocks. We can move them.”

Inside the foundry, Jarhead hears chthunks as something heavy hits the ground. A grating noise follows them. As he turns to investigate. Violet calls out.


“Hello?” he replies.

Violet emerges into the foundry with Memo in tow. “Why is there a hole in this wall and why is it full of traps?”

“Why would it not be full of traps? There’s a hole in the wall.” he says.

Allison and Waters look up from their slow loading of the van. ”Can you grab the crate?” Jarhead calls to them.

Memo grabs his arm. “We don’t have time,” she whines.

“We think something really bad is going to happen,” Violet explains as the small child tries to drag Jarhead away.

“We’ve got to get out of here now, we’ve got to go,” Memo says.

“I don’t even like guns anyway,” Jarhead says stumbling after her. Memo frantically pulls him to the van. “Everyone into the van, we are good to go.”

Violet stops him as he moves for the driver’s seat. “Can you broadcast a message over the psychic maelstrom to warn the other people?”

“I can but not while driving.”

“I’ll drive,” she says taking the wheel.

Jarhead crawls through the packed van to his Tesla sphere. As he powers it up, he says, “get us out of here.”

As the device hums and glows, Jarhead says, “Get out.”

Gator starts to bed down when the roar of vehicles disturbs his thoughts. A flash of light shoots up from the southeast. It flies straight towards the arena, landing with fierce explosion that topples half the structure and leaves the rest in flames.


Jarhead pokes around the truck as the cultists whoop for joy. He winces with each cry.

“Hey the war is over!” One shouts.

“We dealt with half of White’s gang,” Brin says. “There’s no way he can strike now.”

Jubilant, the white robed men and women wander away, leaving the tinker and his assistants alone in the foundry with a half finished armored truck. Jarhead sighs looking at the work left to do.

He wanders to the medical equipment. Fuse breathes slowly and quietly. “He’s going to need another week,” Jarhead says.

The tinkerer grabs a mirror and checks out his own wounds. The pain in his head doesn’t seem to be going away. Who can I trust with some brain surgery, he thinks.

Violet stalks through the tunnels beneath the Music Bowl. The roar of the foundry grows louder and louder. As she passes a crowd of priests, her mind jumps to the trouble with the Militia. A.T. lying in a coma, tended by a few under-equipped nurses. No one clear on who should be giving the orders. Too many guns in too many itchy fingers.

She spies the one man with the medical expertise and tools to save A.T.

Jarhead turns to find her behind him. “Oh.”

“Hello,” she says. “Are you were aware of what happened to A.T.?”

“Who?” he says, a throbbing pain stabbing at his eye.

“The leader of the Militia.”

Jarhead rubs his eye. “No I don’t know.”

“His vehicle got hit by a mine during the battle,” she explains.

“Is he okay?” he asks absently.

Violet frowns. “I was hoping you could help with that since you have a medbay.”

“Oh I thought you wanted me to fix the car.” Jarhead stammers, “I mean yeah. Wait! Do you have first aid experience?”

Violet raises an eyebrow. “Enough to get by.”

“Interesting. Are you squeamish? Do you faint at the sight of blood?”

“No,” she says.

“I have a proposition for you,” he says leaning in. “And A.T. is hurt?”


“Excellent. I mean bad for him. So here’s the thing, I’ve got these holes in my body and I don’t like them there. How about I help you fix A.T., which is a weird name when you think about it, and you help me with these wounds?”

As Jarhead points to the bruises on his head and body, Violet notes a blood stain from one of his ears. “I help fix you and you help fix him?” she asks.


Violet looks the quirky man closely. “Alright I think you got a deal.”


Violet leaves to tell the Militia while Jarhead gets his equipment ready.

November runs over last night’s dream. The ritual bleeding, the prayer to the gods, the blood sinking into the earth. If I empower them and they will help me.

She recalls images of blood stained pyramids, sacrifices to grease gears of universe. These “gods” seek power for its own sake. They are honest but ravenous. The only way they will trust me is if I work with them She shivers.

That means killing Cougar, she thinks as she passes by the makeshift prison. Six guards stand ready at the entrance to one of the gym shower rooms. One way in and out. And Violet will question her in only a few hours. I need a distraction.

Gator shifts in his sleep as someone calls his name.


The voice is faint but familiar. Smells of the swamp and alcohol waft through the mists of his mind.


Gator looks through the murky swamp. A tall thin figure stands at the edge of his vision. Faint beams of sunlight glint off one of the man’s eyes.

“You’re dead,” he tells Gunge.

“I know,” the figure replies.

“What’s it like to be dead?” the weary mercenary calls out.

“It’s not what I expected,” Gunge says. With each syllable, he grows closer and louder until he stands next to his old friend.

Gator looks at his old friend. Somehow he knows he is dreaming but that Gunge isn’t a dream. Even so he sees whisps of the swamp leaking through Gunge’s form. His friend seems hollow, empty, a phantom he could sweep away with one arm.

“It is you,” Gator says slowly.

“It is good to see you again,” Gunge says scratching his dirty hair.

“Sorry about the climbers,” Gator says before adding, “You’re an idiot. I told you not to leave.”

Gunge shrugs.

“We could’ve gotten you to the Autodoc Gator adds.

“The Autodoc?” Gunge asks. “Where are you? Where’s this Autodoc?”

“Near Miami. Where are you?”

Gunge looks around. “Not really sure. Someone asked me to speak to you.”

“Who?” Gator asks.

“I don’t know him. He said his name was Sir Fredricks

“Sir Fredricks?”

Gunge nods. “That’s a strange name isn’t it?”

“A little weird,” the mercenary admits. “Where is he?”

Gunge points out into the mist. “Somewhere out there. He said it was important to talk to you.”


“He said there was trouble on the horizon,” Gunge says furrowing his brow. “Things are changing.”

“Shit is brewing in Miami,” Gator says impatiently. “What does that have to do with me?”

Gunge shits his feet in the muck. “He said it had to do with a woman. She sounded like November. He thinks she’s involved in something dangerous.”

“Well she’s with us,” he says plainly. “We are not danger adverse.”

Gunge scratches his head. “He said a lot of things. I didn’t really understand them all. Stuff about secret projects and technical stuff. He said there was someone who might understand. He mentioned two names: White and Jarhead

“I know Jarhead but what does White have to do with it?”

Gunge searches the mud before facing his friend. “He said they could contact him. They would understand what he is talking about. I guess he said that he could explain it to them.”

“How do I get them to talk to him?” Gator asks, peering closely at the one eyed man.

Something slithers through the space where Gunge’s legs should be. “I don’t know, he said they would know.”

“Okay I’ll try to tell them,” he sighs.

“I got to go,” Gunge says faintly.

Gator half reaches for him. “Before you go, you are dead and all. Did you leave anything around I should know about? I know you kept lots of stuff around.”

“I think you took it all,” he replies, the light bleeding through him.

“I have your map,” Gator says quickly. “What do the symbols mean?”

“I can’t stay too long.” Gunge’s voice fades away. “But the ‘B’ stands for a bunker. I could never get in….”

Gunge’s form melts into the mist, leaving Gator alone in the swamp. With nothing else to do he wanders into the fog.


Jarhead putters around the medbay, setting up the workshop for his brain surgery. He glances at Waters as the boy keeps an eye on the cooling augury. With luck the device will be fully functional by this afternoon.

Allison walks over. “Have you seen Memo

“Last time I saw her, she was in the van,” he says, the pain leaking into his jaw.

“Ok I’ll go look.”

“If she’s not I’ll yell at her,” Jarhead calls after her.

Gator wanders through the murky realm of his dreams. A thick mist hides everything more than a dozen yards away. The ground ranges from thick mud to waist high water. Occasionally something swirls the muck from below.

Suddenly a shape emerges from the mist. The stick-like figure approaches him. Despite her grayed hair and starved form, Gator recognizes his wife. Her dead empty eyes see through him. “Adam!” she cries. “Where were you?”

Rose seems much more solid than Gunge, moving in hitches and jumps. One moment she stands thirty feet away, obscured by mist. Another moment and her hands wave inches from his face. “Adam! You never came! I cried and cried every night and you never came. You never came for me or Gabi.”

“Who took you?” he asks the walking corpse.

She twitches, her knotted hair shifting to expose a painful brand. “They were a biker gang. They grabbed us and sold us. I tried to get away but my owner burned me.” Her eyes lock on his again. “I prayed for you to come to come save us. But you never came.”

“I tried. I couldn’t find you,” he says backing away. “You were gone.”

“You couldn’t save us, you couldn’t save me.” she mumbles.

“Where are you?” he asks.

“I’m dead!!” she screams drawing closer. “I died and Gabi hates you!”

“She’s still alive?” he shouts back. “Where is she?”

“She hates you,” she screams, her body growing thinner, more skeletal. “Why didn’t come to save us?!”

Bony hands reach for him, clawing at his clothes and armor. He tries to run, his feet sinking into the mire. Hands press down on him. Straps hold down his legs. A light flashes in his eyes.

“Hold him down! Hold him down!” someone shouts.

As he struggles to free himself, a figure says, “we need more sedative. Knock him out.”

He feels a pain in his arm and suddenly everything goes dark. Truly dark. Gator sleeps and doesn’t dream.

Violet presses through the crowd to the doll-like figure in the center. Millions looks up with dazzling blue eyes too large for a normal face. She halts her orders for packing supplies and asks, “what is it?”

“It would be really great to get A.T. on his feet as soon as possible,” she says.

“Well yes,” Millions says bluntly, “because then we could go back home.”

Before she can add any other comments, Violet explains, “I agree, which is why I wanted to suggest an alternative to the current care. A friend of mine, Jarhead

“I think we’ve met,” the plastic skinned nurse replies.

“While we were at the Autodoc he upgraded his workshop with medbay capabilities. I was wondering if you could check if they met your specifications. Mox said if they did he would consider putting A.T. under his care.”

Millions taps a delicate chin. “I guess we could look at it. It seems unlikely to be up to our specs but if it gets us home sooner…”

“Alright come with me,” Violet says leading the head nurse into the Music Bowl.

A few minutes later they arrive at the foundry. Millions carefully examines Jarhead’s gear as the tinkerer busies himself finishing some work on a strange metallic sphere.

“I remember this!” Millions says, delicate fingers reaching for some electrical equipment.

“Hey don’t touch any of that!” Jarhead calls out.

Millions draws back and traces the alterations and rewirings. “That’s interesting. I didn’t know you could do that with this piece of equipment.”

Jarhead limps over. “Well I needed to hook it up the other thing and so I had to finagle with the fuses.”

The head nurse scans the medbay. “Well you could take care of anything here. It is practically one of our crash rooms.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to say,” he says.

“We could take A.T. to the Autodoc but with the computer down we have nothing better than this right now.” She turns to Violet. “So sure, if you want accept responsibility for A.T., I’ll tell Mox he would get as good care here as he would with us.”

“Wonderful,” the rugged woman replies. “The sooner we can get him on his feet the better.”

Millions nods. “I’ll talk to Mox and then we’ll arrange a transfer. We have to make sure he’s taken care of every step of the way. And we then can get home.”

As Millions hurries off, Violet’s eyes settle on a crate with a U.S. flag draped over the side. As she moves closer she asks, “where did this come from?”

“The crate?” Jarhead asks. “It was given to us by the cult dude.”

“Yeah,” Allison says joining Violet. “ Wisher dropped this off. He said the cult had acquire this and they wanted us to attach it that thing.” She points to a partially armored truck.

“How did they acquire them?” Violet asks, ice slipping into her voice.

“Sometimes I don’t ask questions about where the parts come from as long as the parts work,” Jarhead says going back to work.

“They didn’t tell us,” Allison says softly.

Violet turns to Jarhead. “It might be important because the leader of the Militia is coming this way and they recently notified me about some supplies that had been purloined from them.”

“It does have an American flag in there,” Allison says quietly.

“That is not going to go over too well,” Violet adds.

“Is this their truck?” Jarhead asks, his attention focused again.

“It might very well be.”

“No I think that was salvaged,” Allison says before shrinking back.

“Well this has Militia written all over it,” Violet says pointing at the crate.

“We could hide it,” Allison says looking around.

Jarhead nods. “Let’s hide it.”

“There’s the hole in the wall,” the blond teen says. “We could put it in there.”

“The hole that leads out of the foundry?” he questions.

“Well yes,” Allison says, “but we put the blocks back up and barricaded the room.”

“Can anybody get in there besides us?” he asks.

“Probably not. The ceiling would fall on them.”

He smiles. “Good let’s put it in there. I love an old ceiling trap, those are so much fun. Loud though.”

Allison moves to push the crate. She struggles to budge it. “This is pretty heavy though.”

“Waters!” Jarhead calls out.

Allison’s brother hurries over and slowly the two wrestle the crate over while Jarhead directs them.

“The next time I talk to the council of the Music Bowl they are going to get a piece of my mind!” Violet says while the others work.

Jarhead looks up. “Trust me you don’t want to lose a piece of your mind.”

November slinks up to a man guarding the Militia’s armored vehicle. She smiles as the man, Hugo, turns to her, unfazed by the pox marks running down the side of his face.

“Hey baby,” the well tanned man says.

“Hey honey,’ she replies moving in close.

“What are you up to?” he asks, his eyes everywhere but on hers.

“Looking for some fun,” she smiles. “Pretty quiet after the battle. Always gets my blood up.”

Hugo settles on her cleavage. “My shift is over in about an hour,” he suggests.

“What exactly are you doing?” she asks.

“Gotta keep an eye on the vehicle. It is going to be our weapon in taking down the rest of White’s forces.”

“Still looks kind of boring around here right now,” she pouts.

“Not so boring from my point of view.”

“Yeah but it could be a lot more exciting,” she says her hand sliding up his arm.

Hugo voice quickens as he glances about. “I have my duffle in there, I guess we can find some place comfortable.”

The pair slip inside where the thick armor plating muffles their activities.

A while later, Hugo smiles up at November as she pulls a pair of grenades from the supplies. “I might need them so I can help for the coming battle,” she says, before crouching down to grab her shirt.

“They won’t miss them,” he says sleepily. “Though I heard someone stole some of our supplies. A.T. wasn’t happy. Whoever did that is going to pay.”

“If someone does notice these missing, maybe it was those guys,” she suggests, pulling on her clothing.

“Yeah those guys, that’s a good idea.”

November gives him a final kiss. “Thanks for the fun sweetie.”

A half hour later, November gingerly stretches a length of fishing line around a corner. She takes a deep breath, then a short one. Then she pulls.

Down the hall the pins of the grenades pull free and a deafening explosion blows out the wall. As White’s men make their bid for freedom, November disappears into the tunnels beneath the arena.

She soon reaches a carefully prepared chamber, lit by a distant fluorescent light. She whispers, “ Cougar, come to me.”

Minutes before Jarhead repeats his instructions to Violet for the third time. “Just let the drill do its work and keep the blood out of my eyes. Once it punches through the bone, stop it. Then makes sure you use the bandages to stop the blood flow and bind up the hole in my head.”

Violet nods mutely.

Jarhead starts the surgery, applying an anesthetic to the side of his head. An automated drill whirs to life, slicing through his temple and into his skull. Violet wipes the sweat off his brow and throws the switch once she hears the final crunch.

As the pressure releases on his head, Violet quickly applies the bandages to stop the bleeding and patch the wound. Jarhead slips into unconsciousness.

Violet reads Jarhead’s vitals on the machines. The wiry man seems stable. She sighs.

An explosion rocks the arena.

“Now what!” she shouts.

“That sounds like it came from the other side of the Music Bowl bowl,” Allison says jumping to her feet.

“Allison keep an eye on him,” Violet orders. “Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid when he wakes up. And make sure he isn’t retarded or anything. I’m going to go check that explosion.”

“Okay,” the younger woman says. “If you see Memo you should tell her to come back here.”

“I’ll do that.”

A few minutes later Violet arrives at scene of utter chaos. Cultist swarm the smoke filled chambers, searching for escaping prisoners. Violet focuses on the shattered wall.

Her keen eyes spot grenade pins scattered several yards away. Violet picks one up, noticing a translucent thread hanging from it. This was set off remotely, she thinks scanning the too thickly crowded halls. It was a distraction.

Violet follows the thread back to one of the entrances to the lower levels. She quickly dons a mask and heads down after the culprit.

Once deep in the tunnels Violet lets her eyes search the darkness, allowing her mind to touch the psychic maelstrom and the truth that lies beyond it.

Under the glow of the sparse lighting she makes out shallow footprints, perhaps of teen or woman. She also feels a static in the air, a charge as if someone or something is interfering with her. Whoever the culprit is, they are working for something far older, far hungrier. Minds that belong to the enemy!

The flickering tube of light barely illuminates the shallow grooves in the chamber’s dirt floor. November calms her mind and sharpens her knives. She glances down the hall.

Something looms in the dark. Flicker.

Cougar stands beneath the lamp, a meaty hand wrapped around a shower head. Bits of tile hang loosely from one end. The titan’s visage remains hidden beneath a mask of bone and steel.

November lets her approach, then leans in for a kiss once she enters the circle. “Hold still baby,” she says softly.

November’s knife slices up and out quickly. As Cougar gurgles, her thick blood spills into the channels on the floor.

As the giantess slides to her knees, Violet slips up to the entrance of the chamber, unseen by all. As Cougar’s bulk descends, the survivalist recognizes November’s face in the inconstant light. The beautiful woman chants some strange foreign tongue as she readies her blade for a second strike.

Violet stands horrified at what her friend has become, a tool for what lurks in the maelstrom. She takes a deep breath, brings up her rifle, and fires.

The blast clips November sending her stumbling back. One numb hand lets go of her knife, while the other instinctively grabs her shotgun and returns fire. In the roar of gunfire, Cougar shakes off her trance and scrambles for the exit. A weak hand grabs for the giant’s heel before November shouts, ““Freeze Cougar!”

The fluorescent flickers, revealing Violet’s unconscious form lying beside the giant. The blast tore a hole in her friend’s face, narrowingly avoiding her left eye. Violet pants and quivers unconsciously.

November offers up a quick prayer to the gods. “Please guide me, my masters.”

A cold chill runs down her back as the voices whisper, “finish what you started, leave the other one here.”

November pulls the knife across Cougar’s throat. She twitches and collapses, her blood channeled into an elaborate pattern in the ground.

As the dancer tidies up, she takes a long look at Violet. She pulls the tall woman’s body to the center of the circle. November puts the bloody knife in Violet’s hand and traces a strange pattern across her face.

She considers the bullet wound. November finds a rock and covers it in blood. She drops it between Cougar and Violet. It is a weak story but it will do.

Finally, the dancer sneaks back to surface, using the sewers to emerge outside the arena. An hour of walking later and she mingles with the crowds of the Music Bowl. Quietly she hopes her smile hides her guilt from the crowd and the gods. They, at least, must be pleased.

Jarhead blinks.

A blurry Allison appears overhead. “You are awake. How much is two plus two?”

He blinks again and sits up. “I have no time for inane questions.”

The fair haired woman protests, “I need to make sure you haven’t suffered any damage to your head. Other than the hole. Can you still do math?”

Jarhead sighs. “Two plus two is four, four plus four is eight, five times four is twenty. Lets go!”

She gets in front of him as he shifts off the bed. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Three,” he says curtly.

“Okay, I guess he’s okay.” Allison turns to her brother. “What do you think Waters

“He seems alright,” the short boy says.

“Good.” Allison turns back to Jarhead. “The nurse, the creepy one, said they were going to bring A.T. in here in a moment.” Jarhead nods. “Waters has a bed ready for him.”

“The one with the straps, right?” he asks.


“Okay perfect. I trained you well. How long have I been out?”

“An hour,” she says with a slight smile.

“That’s all? Is everything else setup?”

“We have the IV ready and the monitor,” Water says quickly.

“What about the box?” Jarhead asks.

“We put that in the place,” he says furrowing his brow.

“Good. No more talking about it.”

Allison speaks up. “I still haven’t seen Memo

“Wasn’t she in the van?” the inventor asks.

“No and I had Waters look for her everywhere.”

“Where is Memo?” he mutters. “Where is Violet

The young woman explains, “there was a jail break and some of White’s people got away. Violet went that way. I haven’t seen her since.”

“I’m sure she’s fine,” he says.

The doors burst open as A.T. is wheeled in. Jarhead takes a close look at his wounds, propping open his eyes and checking the readings on the monitor.

“This guys a lot worse than I thought,” Jarhead says. He glances around for someone in charge, settling on Mox. “Can I put in any upgrades or is this the standard model?”

“Just make him better,” the huge soldier says. As Jarhead laughs, he clarifies, “get him healthy again.”

“Oh healthy,” the tinkerer says disappointedly. “Waters go look for Memo. Allison go help as well. I’ll take care of this.”

The next few days pass quickly. Jarhead busies himself saving A.T.’s life while November engages in a search for the missing Violet. The cult is able to capture most of White’s men. but people begin to question what happened to the missing revolutionary.

November finds Violet’s revolutionaries one hot afternoon arguing about what to do without her.

“But where the hell is Violet?” AOL asks for the hundredth time. “Did she go off by herself again without telling anyone?”

“When was the last time anyone saw her?” November asks interrupting Boo’s grumbling retort.

“We haven’t seen her in a few days,” Lily says. “Last we saw her, she went to talk to Jarhead.”

Starbuck adds, “ Garber says he saw her talking to the nurses and Mox. Nobody has seen her since.”

“What are you planning to do?” the dancer asks.

Boo gets to his feet. “We’ve got to track her down.”

AOL glares at him. “But we’ve searched all around the Music Bowl, she’s not there! I think she must have gone hunting.”

“Maybe she went to the Autodoc November suggests. “She left Gator there and she wants to move on White soon.”

“That makes sense,” Boo says, looking away from AOL. “Garber and I will drive over there and check it out.”

“Are you sure you only want to send a few of you?” she asks.

“But what about Joshua Lily asks. “He’s still weak.”

“I’m not sure it makes sense to all stay in one place,” Starbuck adds, stroking his dog. “White’s had a lot of time to plan a counter attack.”

“But she may need all our help,” Boo says.

November interjects before tempers rise again. “Perhaps just someone who could report back if Boo and Garber are needed there.”

AOL drops her angry tone and tells them, “I’ll radio you guys when we get there.”

Boo grumbles a bit but soon the three ride off in his yellow truck.

Elsewhere Gator become aware of a bright light above him. A voice mumbles to his left. He pushes open an eye, sleepily but without pain.

“What did you give me,” he slurs.

“We gave him to much yesterday,” a nurse in blue says to someone on his right.

Gator twists his head. Krin stands there, glancing out the doorway. He turns back, “Oh good you are up. We tried to revive you earlier but after your freakout yesterday Job gave you too much sedative.”

“Why am I up?” the mercenary mumbles.

“You asked us to wake you up if something happened,” Krin reminds him. “If there was trouble.”

“What’s going on?”

Krin chews his lip. “The Militia is here.”

“Fuck,” he says sluggishly as he pushes himself up.

“They are not particularly happy.” Krin glares at Gator. “Your guys all bugged out. I don’t know where they are. We got word that A.T. got banged up at the Music Bowl. There was an attack there and it didn’t go well for them. Anyway what you need to know is that the Militia don’t know yet that you are here but they’ve been asking around for you and your gang.”

“They are not a gang,” Gator corrects as he pulls his legs off the bed.

“Your mercenary buddies, whatever,” Krin says. “They are looking for payback.”

“Who is leading them?” he asks, shaking the cobwebs from his mind.

“This girl, Fire. She’s their Lieutenant.” Krin adds, “she been a little bit rough with us.”

“How many do they got?”

“Here? Right now about a couple dozen guys.”

“That’s not so bad,” Gator says standing steadily. “So they’ve been rough on you?”

Barnum had some sort of deal but he’s not around so we don’t know what we really owe,” he explains looking into the hall again. “They’ve been taking advantage of us.”

“Where’s Barnum?”

“He’s missing. The machines dragged him off and we haven’t seen him since. We don’t know if he is alive, dead or worse.”

Gator grabs his gear. “I can disappear or I can help you out here and fight them.”

“We are not fighters. I don’t think we can afford your help,” Krin says sourly. “Not money-wise but in collateral damage.”

Gator buckles on his armor and turns to Krin ready. “I might be able to talk them out of here but I’d rather talk to A.T.”

“He’s back at the Music Bowl,” Job says. “ Jarhead’s working on him.”

Gator glances back. “That’s not good. He’s probably dead.”

“Well Millions wanted to clear out as quick as she could. Or he could,” the nurse says. “Maybe you should just disappear. It would be easier.”

“I’ll get out then and and see if I can’t get them off your back.”

“Thanks,” Krin says. “Try to head out the East Wing, they haven’t been hanging out there.”

“Will do.”

Krin looks out the hall a final time and waves the mercenary outside.

Gator slips through long white halls like a ghost. He halts at the final corner before the doors to East Wing. A pair of men chat idly. He recognizes one voice, the youth from Stumpland, Hammer. The other is a mystery. The pair seem absorbed in their conversation, oblivious to any threat. He hears November’s name and settles down into a crouch to learn more.

“When was the last time you saw her?” the stranger asks.

“She was at my home town Stumpland before I joined up,” Hammer says.

“Stumpland? You know where she went from there?” the older man says.

“Can’t help you, I left before they got back from a trip,” he says idly. “They went to the coast I think. I don’t know if they came back or just left.”

“I’ve been looking for her,” the other man says. “I’ve got a message.”

Bored with the talk, Gator paces to a nearby room, looking for a wall more drywall than cinderblock. With a crash, he punches through into the East Wing. Before anyone can do anything, he escapes the hospital and enters the ruins of Miami.

With the hot Florida sun overhead, Gator creeps through the tumbled bricks and steel that was the city’s business district. A church steeple leans drunkenly overhead.

“Psst, this way,” a voice says, “over here.”

Gator spies Road crouched in the shadow of the church. He approaches.

“Hey boss,” the junior mercenary says. “ Morgana has taken most of our guys a half mile west of here.”

Gator eyes the pale warrior. “Why do you think the Militia would of shown up?”

“I don’t know,” Road says innocently. “Maybe they wanted to check why the Autodoc was okay. I don’t know what their deal is.”

“They were looking for me and the company,’ Gator says flatly.

Road looks down. “Oh. I thought Morgana told you about that?”


“Oh, right. Sorry.” He sighs. “That’s why Morgana left me here.”

Gator holds up two fingers. “So Road that’s two strikes.”

“Is it three strikes I’m out?” he says with a faltering smile.

Gator sighs. “See we don’t really give two strikes. So the question is what are you going to do to fix this?”

“Um. I don’t know boss. What do you need?”

“We got to think about this. Let’s head to Morgana.”

Road nods. “Okay this way.”

The younger mercenary leads Gator through the ruin to the rest of the gang. Just over a dozen hardened men and women camp in what looks like an impassible ruin from the outside.

Morgana waves off the snipers. “You found Road. Good.”

“Yeah, why don’t you tell everybody to get ready to get moving?”

She nods and barks a few orders. As the crowd quickly break camp, she turns to the scarred warrior. “So boss what’s our next move? It seems like we should make ourselves scarce around here.”

“Yes, the Militia is looking for us.” He adds, “ A.T. is down for the count.”

She buckles her pack and cinches it across her back. “We heard.”

“I think they are a little rogue anyway,” Gator says. “I think we need to find someone with a clear head. Let’s go see if Jarhead killed A.T.”

She makes sure her weapons are secure and surveys the mercenaries. “Alright guys let’s go to the Music Bowl, quick but quiet. We don’t know if there is trouble there.”

The crew musters out, Wire scouting ahead for any trouble.

Gator stays close to his lieutenant. “Morgana, we need to do something about Road.”

She shrugs. “What do you want to do about him? Do we get one more use out of him or cut him loose?”

“I don’t think it’s wise to cut him loose at this point. I think he could be of use though.”

“Yeah there’s always bombs to be placed and patsies to be made,” she jokes.

“Or amends to be made.”

She nods. “Yeah. If they are fine with one that’s good by me. It wasn’t us that was after that crate. Let’s get going.”

Violet feels the pain first. A painful throbbing and the thick of buzz of pumping blood help to distract from the stabbing horror that is the left side of her face.

I’ve been shot.

Her fingers claw reflexively into the soft earth. She blindly drops chunks of cold dirt from her right hand and reaches up to her face. Numb fingers encounter sticky blood and something that feels more like raw meat than flesh.

She pull back in pain and fear.

Long moments pass.

A flickering light illuminates something nearby. She tries to open her left eye but it resists.

Eventually she decides to get up. Slowly she pushes up from the wet ground, Her gas mask or what is left of it, falls from her face in pieces. Violet tries to shake her head clear and instantly regrets it. After a few shaky minutes a painful fog falls back over her.

She shifts her gaze to her left. The massive body of Cougar lies face down in the earth. congealed blood traces an elaborate pattern on the chamber’s floor surrounding Violet. The giant’s bone and steel mask lies a few feet away.

How did I get here? She recalls confronting someone. They shot me in the head. A blast of emotional betrayal stabs through her painful fog.

Violet looks down, seeing a knife still clutched in her left hand. She drops it. Then she remembers the spores.

The fluorescent light stops flickering for a minute. In the cold light, she sees the mushroom filled logs, now covered in climber stalks and spore grains.

Violet stumbles through the tunnels until she finds the sewer entrance. The survivalist then clambers through the soaked ruin for a long hour until she reaches the surface, protecting her face as best she can.

The Florida sun blazes over the Music Bowl to the west. Violet continues forward, away from the arena and whoever it was betrayed her. She finds a pool of water and washes the blood from her face and body.

Finally she lets the water become still and looks into the reflection. The blast shredded half of her face, shattering her cheekbone and barely missed her left eye.

And I have the climbers, she thinks. She gets up and looks north. I have a few days at least, maybe even a few weeks. More than enough time to get to the Autodoc.

Hours later as she mounts a hill of tumbled bricks, a bright streak flies from the southeast. The object flies over Violet before beginning to tumble. The device, a cylinder spewing fire, turns end over end before crashing to earth a half mile from the Music Bowl in a mighty explosion.

From the arena lip, the inhabitants watch in horror as a city block turns to fire and ash. Elsewhere Gator watches it fall with dread. White needs to die quicker.

The Lord Humongous Homage

The sun rises over a happy celebration in front of the Autodoc. Garber and Boo hug while the nurses enjoy the fresh air.

“Thank goodness you are okay," Garber says. "I was worried.”

Elsewhere Gator chats with the nurse running things at the moment. The other nurses distract the older woman, causing her to pause with every new entreaty.

“We still don’t know where Barnum is,” Madame says, picking absently at the denim patches on her hospital scrubs. " Krin, make sure that the plumbing is still working. We don’t know how much of that was controlled by the AI."

She turns back to Gator. “You were saying?”

“I asked, how are things rolling along here?“ Gator repeats.

“They are a little bit calmer,” she says haltingly.

“That’s good. I’m in the need of some services.“

The white haired woman looks him over. “You do look pretty bad.”

Gator scratches at his burns. “Kinda part of the job. Trying to get you all operating again.”

Madame looks his wounds, probing the burns and unwrapping some of his bandages. “It is healing. Slowly. The best thing I could advise is taking some time to rest. We can help with that but it is still going to take time.”

“Not sure how much time I got,” Gator says, rubbing his chin. He spots Violet looking over the Autodoc’s defenses, or lack thereof. He wanders over.

“I think we need to go to the Music Bowl and get the staff back here," Violet tells her allies. “For one thing it will reduce the strain on the food supply.” She turns to ”/characters/november" class=“wiki-content-link”>November. “Do you want to come too?”

The dancer hefts one of Winona’s strange baskets. “I definitely think we should. We can use Winona’s advanced warning devices here in case someone attacks. If we can figure out how to tap into it.”

Violet nods and directs Boo and his son to load up Joshua. The wounded man mumbles, “I’m sorry, so sorry. What happened to Scarlet

Violet leans over him. “I’m sorry we weren’t able to save her.”

Joshua closes his eyes. “So sorry. Where’s Scarlett?”

“So you’re heading out?” Gator asks coming up behind her.

“That’s the plan,” Violet says.

The scarred warrior turns to November. “Be careful with that thing.”

“It’s not active,” she assures him as she places it in the truck. “I’m thinking we might be able to use it if Jarhead can activate it.”

“OK, but we usually burn that shit.” He asks Violet, “when we are going to make our move against White?”

“Our priority is to get the nurses back to the Autodoc first,” she tells him.

“Wasn’t Jarhead doing that?”

“He didn’t say anything to me about it,” November says. “He isn’t the most strategic.”

“He’s busy with his own projects,” Violet says. “If we want this place fully functional, we need to get the staff back. That’s our first order of business. Then we’ll see about White. One thing at a time.”

“That one thing solves all the other things,” Gator says.

“But we are not ready to go up against him yet,” November says.

“You’ve got some time,” Violet tells him, looking at the badly injured warrior. “Why don’t you take it easy and keep an eye around here for now.”

Jarhead curses as he hobbles back down to the foundry. Outside Cougar’s voice bellows for them to surrender.

The dread locked tinkerer runs into Wisher on a lower level. “Hey there’s a whole army out there!”

“Ah Jarhead good,” Wisher says as Jarhead braces himself on a rusty girder. “I was looking for you. The council want you to do something for them.”

“They want me to fix something now?!”

“No they want you to make something,” the lithe man explains.

“Now!” He replies gesturing wildly.

“Yes, let’s go down to the foundry, the materials should already be delivered.”

“Materials?” the tinkerer says with anticipation. “Oh good! Let’s go.”

A few moments later they find Allison and Waters in the foundry looking at big crate. Several members of the Music Bowl mill about, moving rusty doors and sheets of metal into the workshop. A large truck rumbles outside.

“So you want me to?” Jarhead asks Wisher.

“We need you to put that,” he says pointing to the crate and metal, “into that,” pointing to the truck.

Jarhead strokes his goatee. “Maybe if I crack this open,” says grabbing a crowbar and popping open the crate.

As he rubs his sore shoulder, he takes in the contents. A pair of flags, American and Confederate, cover piles of machine guns, bullets, grenades, and grenade launchers. “So you want me to mount this onto the the truck?”

Wisher nods. “All of our best fighters went out to Taters

Jarhead sighs. “who is going to be driving that truck?”

“We have got to figure that out still,” the cultist says. “It’s not important if the truck is not ready.”

“You want this when?” Jarhead says looking the work needed just to mount the weapons.

“As soon as possible.”

“For that out there?” he says point his thumb behind him.

“It’s the best we’ve got. Just get it done as quick as you can.”

“I’m going to need help with the mounting.”

“You’ve got them,” Wisher says gesturing to the other disciples. “Let me know if you need more.”

The tinkerer perks up. “That will do.”

As the yellow SUV drives off, Madame approaches Gator. “Are you planning on staying?”

He nods. “We are going to stick around. We don’t want White retaking you.”

The old woman relaxes her shoulders. “That’s good. I feel a little bit better.”

Gator sighs. “I could use a little bit of rest too.”

“We could hasten your recovery,” she offers, “though it would put you out of the action for a bit.”

He looks off into the ruins. “That may be helpful. Let me give some instructions to my men.”

She nods and he heads off to find Morgana. He finds the plain mercenary chewing some jerky atop an old bakery.

“Hey boss,” she calls down.

“How’s it going?”

“Pretty good,” she says climbing down. “Looks like we’ve got the Autodoc back. We can use our medical bonus again.”

“Yes, looks like we’ll get another after this job.”

She nods approvingly and drops the last couple feet to the ground.

“We keep these people, they keep us happy,” he continues. “Which reminds me, I’m probably going to go under for a few days, to try to get me back to a hundred percent. So I’m talking to you beforehand. Maintain defences, keep a lookout. That sort of thing.“

“We’ll keep an eye out,” she says with a strange slowness.

“Wake me up if the shit gets real,” he says his eyes gauging her. “Is there anything I need to know before I go under?”

“Um no,” she says shuffling her feet. “Well there’s just one thing but it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“And what’s that?”

“We did a little job while you were under last time,” she explains looking down. “I think I mentioned it. It all went perfect, nobody got hurt, we got paid. All nice and good. But since we are a bit further north and I think they might come by…you might want to know who the target was.”

“OK,” he grunts.

“The council at the Music Bowl wanted us to grab a weapon shipment from the Militia. They got word they were bringing it in on the train. It was lightly guarded. It was easy pickings but they know the supplies went missing and…they might know we were involved.”

“How would they know that?” he asks.

“It’s Road’s fault,” she offers quickly. “I told him to make sure there were no witnesses and the damn fool chickened out and left one of them lying there, only mostly dead.”

“That’s Road’s second screw up,” he mutters.

“Yeah. The guy probably died of blood loss before they found him. But we’ve been trying to keep our heads down in case they found something.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“So we can keep an eye out but if they come by we may need to fade into the background,” she explains her eyes rising to meet his. “They don’t have a beef with the Autodoc so we should be fine.”

Gator nods. “Keep a few people stationed here unless you want to take up space in the other wing. Nobody goes there yet anyway.”

“Didn’t some people go missing in there?” she says. “You know, there’s a church with a nice intact steeple about three blocks that way.”

He shrugs. “Hold up there then. I’ll tell the nurses to get me up if something goes down.”


“You did a job and that’s okay, just remember who we are doing jobs for and who we are doing jobs against.”

Gator turns to go and stops. Sensing her uneasiness, he decides to test her limits. “You have my back for anything right? Is there anything that would test your loyalty?”

“I was upfront this is all an economic venture,” she says.

“I get that. But if shit gets real?”

“If I run out on you…think about what that does to my reputation,” she says, running a hand through her dirty brown hair. “I guess if the price was right and we weren’t in a firefight I guess I might consider it.”

“What wouldn’t you do for a job?”

“I don’t kill kids,” she says flatly.

“I’m good with that.” He smiles gruesomely. “Alright I’ll be under for a little bit then.”

Boo’s SUV bounces along the ruined streets of Miami. A loud rumble echoes from the ruins, growing closer by the minute. Boo pulls the truck to stop as the others peer out.

Violet recognizes that the vehicle rounding the corner isn’t a tank but from its treads and armored bulk she can tell it is some Golden Age military weapon. The monstrous thing grinds down the road trailed by a platoon of Milita. A Confederate flags flutters from the top, where a man in fatigues calls out to them.

November pulls her gun as Boo’s hand slides to the holster by the driver’s seat.

A.T.’s voice booms over a loudspeaker. “Stop your vehicle, we need to talk.”

“I got this Vi,” November says, stepping out of the truck with her shotgun over her shoulder.

The colossus stops about sixty feet away. The gray haired A.T. emerges from the rear flanked by the looming Mox.

He stops a few feet away. “November, it’s good to see you again.“

“Hey A.T.,” she replies. “Mox.”

As Violet steps out of the SUV, the commander says, “I need to talk to Violet.”

“What’s up?” the survivalist asks walking over.

A.T. gestures behind him. “As you can see most of our supplies finally came in. It seems about time to start liberating parts of this city. I was wondering what you heard about the Big Ship

“Well White only has three minions he can really trust. Rue Wakeman, Winona, and Cougar. We killed Rue after the Autodoc incident and I just took out Winona. So we only have one left, his thug and war leader.”

“So I guess you are planning to send an assassin in after this Cougar fellow is taken care of?” he asks.

“That’s the plan,” she says. “Once we’ve taken out the head, we can start working on establishing democracy.”

“That sounds pretty good,” he grins. “I don’t fancy my chances against the Big Ship.” His smile shrinks away. “That still leaves me with one little problem.”

“What is it?”

“You know a bunch of mercs running around here? I think they call themselves the Free Company?” he says eyeing her intently.

“What about them?” she replies calmly.

“It seems that when my supplies came last week, they up and jumped my men. They killed five of them and ran off with the gear.” He leans forward. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen them around?”

“Doesn’t seem like they would stay around after pulling some shit like that,” November says slipping next to him.


“You have proof it was them?” Violet asks, keeping her eyes focused on his.

“I have the word of a man who was there,” he says. “A man I trust, or trusted before he bled out.”

Violet sighs and explains, “once we got the nurses at the Music Bowl, we can look into this. One thing at a time. What do you intend to do?”

“They are criminals,” he says roughly. “They need to be punished. It is a time of war. What they did was treason.”

“We’ve got a lot on our hands right now,” she says. “How about we hold off on this until we get the nurses back?”

November slips beside Violet. “You could ask him to help with these citizens,” she whispers. “He is supposed to be protecting them. I think if I asked he would devote his resources to it. And our mission will take us back to the Autodoc.”

Violet grits her teeth and nods.

November touches A.T.’s arm. “A.T., I totally understand how concerning this is, but we are the middle of a crucial mission ourselves for the safety of the republic. There are a whole bunch of medical staff that were moved to the Music Bowl. We really need to get them back to the Autodoc. We need to get that place up and running so we’ve got that support before we move on White.”

“That’s a good point,” he says, rubbing his chin.

“You and your boys could really help keep them safe.”

“It is a large group.” He nods and turns. “Alright men, we have more important things to deal with.”

As the Militia mobilizes, Violet resolves to find what is going on. I have questions for Gator and his friends.

The occasional gunshot breaks through the din of the foundry. Jarhead’s team pays no attention and focuses on mounting armored plates and weapons.

“You really think this would work?" Allison asks.

Jarhead shrugs. “I don’t know but it is kind of fun to find out. All we really need to do keep working long enough and everybody else will be back eventually anyway. That reminds me! The radio!”

Allison follows the dusky tinkerer to the van. “Yeah maybe we should give them a call. If they come back they’ll just run right into them.”

“Here hold this,” he says handing her the part he was working on. He tunes the radio and says, “Jarhead here. Anyone out there? Anyone listening?”

As they bounce along in Boo’s SUV, the radio crackles and Jarhead’s voice comes through faintly.

“Is it supposed to do that?” November asks. She talks to the radio box. “Hello?”

Garber switches on the transmitter and speaks into the microphone. “Hello?”

”Is this Garber?” Jarhead replies.

“Yes we are heading back,” the young man says.

“Glad to hear that. How close are you?”

The tall youth glances ahead. “We are about five minutes out.”

“Stop!” Jarhead shouts. “Stop, stop.”

Boo slams the brakes and the gang lurches forward.

Violet grabs the microphone. “Okay we are stopped. Why?”

“We are kind of under siege by Cougar,” he babbles. “I’m building a tank. He’s demanding our surrender. He’s got a couple guys with him. No more than 50.”

“Okay hang on,” she says before stepping out and flagging down A.T.

The armored personnel carrier grinds to a stop. “What’s the problem?” A.T. calls out.

“It sounds like the Music Bowl is surrounded,” November says. “Good thing you guys are here.”

A.T. climbs down the side of the vehicle. “Cougar’s out in the open?”

“Seems like it,” Violet says. “This might be a good time to get him.”

Violet and A.T. pile into the SUV and she grabs the microphone. “Do you know Cougar’s position?”

“Get eyes on him,” A.T. barks.

“They are driving in cars,” Jarhead replies. “I can probably tell which car he’s in.”

“Tell us how they are spread out,” November adds.

“Give me some time,” Jarhead says. Back at the foundry, he puts down the microphone and finds an idle cultist named Brin. “I need you to find out which car the voice is booming from.”

“Don’t we need to work on this?” the man replies.

“This is more pressing now. Go do it,” he commands.

“But the council told me to do this,” the junior cultist says looking up.

“Didn’t they tell you to listen to me?” Jarhead says. “And what am I telling you to do?”

Brin nods. “Okay but if I get in trouble I’m telling them you told me to do it.”

“Whatever, just do it,” Jarhead says as Brin runs up the stairs to the surface.

Gator watches his gang move to a safe distance. Wire lingers, watching the area from atop a ruined donut shop. The mercenary leader turns to Madame.

“So are you ready to use our services?” she asks.

“Yes,” Gator says.

She smiles and guides him inside. He asks her, “if shit goes down, are you able to get me back up?”

“We can revive you quickly,” she says, pointing to a seat, “but you might be a little off for a few hours.”

“As long as I can be up and moving.” As she nods, he adds, “let’s do it.”

Another nurse jabs his arm with a needle. He feels his eyes growing heavy, his limbs become distant. The pain recedes. He doesn’t reach oblivion though.

Instead Gator’s mind picks through recollections of better times.

A widely spaced picket fence defines where the holding begins and the wilds ends. Within the bounded area the potato and turnip farmers are protected by Jackson and his men. In return they owe a portion of their harvest and their lifelong loyalty.

The man who would someday be Gator toils under the hot sun. A posse of men on well fed horses rides up.

Jackson’s horse trots up to him. “Be needing the next tithe of sugar beets in a few days,” the hard holder says. “You are going to be ready with that Adam?”

“Probably,” the young man says wiping his brow. “It’s tough with this blight.”

Jackson looks along the horizon. “Keep hearing about this blight. You make sure you’ve got your tithe in line. Be thankful we don’t got a church. Then you’d have to tithe twice.”

Adam nods. “Yeah we don’t want a church.”

“Good man,” Jackson says sparing him a glance. “I’ll be back in a couple days.”

“But,” Gator interrupts. “We may make it this time. but next time? It’s hard.”

“You just keep working as you can. Keep that wife and kid working hard too.”

He sighs. “I will. Just keep us safe.”

Jackson spurs his horse. “Alright boys, time to talk to the next one.”

As they ride off, the world melts and time slips fluidly to evening. A red sun slides along the horizon as Adam’s family finishes off a beet flavored homeopathic soup.

Gabbi cries, “Mommy I’m so hungry.”

The worn woman tries to comfort the young girl. “It’s okay dear, we’ll put a little bit more of the beet in the soup tomorrow.”

Gabbi turns to Adam. “Daddy, you can tell me a story so I can go to sleep and not think about how hungry I am?”

Adam leads his daughter to bed and says, “Once a upon a time there was a little girl who had all of the food she could eat. There was food on all of the shelves. She was happy."

“Did they have bread?” she asks with wide eyes.

“Yes and things to put on the bread. Before the spots came around.” He continues his story and soon his daughter slips into sleep, a line of drool extending from the corner of her mouth.

As he returns to the main room, his wife, Rose, asks, “what are we going to do? The blight has wiped out almost all of our sugar beets.”

“We’ll do the best we can,” the tired man says. “I’ll talk to Jackson. We can’t farm if we can’t live. We may have to think about something new.”

Rose clutches a ripped shirt. “You know what happened to Gabs and her kids when they couldn’t grow enough. Jackson sold them off.”

“We’ll figure something out. Something’s got to grow in this godforsaken soil.”

Brin bursts into the foundry after several minutes. “I went up and looked," he pants. "The voice is still coming from that little bug car. It is parked just across the big road.”

Jarhead radios that to the others.

Violet looks up from the device to A.T. “What say we go do a little bit of sniping?”

“Okay,” the Militia leader says. “The only problem is we lack the high ground. There’s plenty of places to fire from but everything is pretty level.”

“What if we take out their tires and then lay down suppression fire?” November suggests.

“Great except they’d be shooting at us while we do that.”

Violet turns to Boo. “What are the more strategic locations outside of the Music Bowl

The stout man rubs his jaw. "About 30 years ago they leveled most of the area around the arena to make it more fortified. But there’s the sewers. They are mostly collapsed in the city but out here they are still pretty intact. I don’t know if they are passable but that could be a way into the the Music Bowl.”

Violet looks off the south where the rim of the arena rises above the ruins. “There are some pretty good sniping positions in there.”

“You could climb up to top and hit anything,” Boo says.

“Why are they not doing that now?” November asks, listening to the sporadic gunfire.

“I don’t know,” the older man says.

Violet quickly gathers the Militia’s best sharpshooters and outlines her plan. “We will sneak inside while the rest of the Militia moves into position. Then when we began firing from above-”

“We will come in and smash them,” A.T. says smacking his first into his hand.

“I’ll hang back to deal with Joshua Boo says. “ Garber you go with Violet.”

“I’ll go with the main force,” November says.

As the men arm themselves, November steps away to make a quick prayer to the gods as she cleans her many daggers.

As she works she feels a growing thirst. She can smell the sweat and the promise of blood in the hot air. A voice whispers in her mind, “Let the warriors meet upon the road.”

Boo meanwhile radios back to Jarhead. “Violet is going to get some men into the Music Bowl, they are going to come up through the sewers.”

“We’ve got sewers?” the tinkerer replies. “I guess that makes sense.”

Jarhead finds Wisher. “Expect company of the helpful kind coming up from the sewers.”

The surprised priest replies, “Okay I’ll let the guards know.”

As Jarhead returns to work on the truck, he spots Memo. “Memo go up top and let me know when the shit goes down,” he says handing her a partial set of binoculars.

Then the inventor reaches out with his mind, seeking how he can best help with the coming danger. The swirling activity around him seems to slow. His mind flashes to the numerous entrances and exits to the Music Bowl. Here, there is one way in and out. Here he can help rebuild after the damage is done. He relaxes a bit and gets to work on the medical equipment.

Violet’s team quickly finds a sewer entrance, a collapsed street that opens into a tunnel leading towards the arena. After long minutes of pushing through sludge and removing obstacles, they find themselves beneath a darkened grate.

Violet shines her flashlight up through the grate. A concrete ceiling hangs above, crossed by a faint crack. A noise like distant banging reverberates from far away.

She pulls herself higher and shines the light closer to the floor above. It pans over a log covered in mushrooms. They are beneath the mushroom farm. The one infected with spores.

“Get your masks on,” she tells the others.

Protected they pop open the grate and pull themselves into the dirt lined chamber. Their lights illuminate several burst spore pods, their contents covering the walls and floors.

Orienting herself, she leads the others to the nearest exit. She knocks on the chained and locked doorway.

“What was that?” a muffled voice cries.

“There shouldn’t be anybody down there,” another voice says.

“Didn’t they say somebody-”

“Hey!” Violet shouts.

“Who is that?” the first voice asks.

“We’re here to help stop the siege.”

“Oh it is them!” the second says. “Let’s get it unlocked.”

“Wait!” the first says. “You are not covered in spores?”

“Something to wash them off wouldn’t hurt,” Violet says.

“Give us a few minutes.”

The riflemen wait in the infested darkness as the guards get ready. Finally they open the doors, revealing two white robed figures wrestling a long hose while a third pumps madly.

The fourth one shouts orders through a mask. “Stand over there! One at a time!”

The washing goes quickly and the team rapidly clean their guns before heading up to the arena rim.

Gator moans in his sleep, his dreams taking a darker turn. Elsewhere the psychic maelstrom rumbles with violence and blood.

Adam wakes to the night he lost everything. He face aches from the beatings. He smells the smoke of the burning fields and the hears the screams of the wounded and dying. The young man stumbles through the gap that was one of his walls.

Rose he cries.

Amid the scattered blazes he hears his wife call back, “Adam!!”

Adam stumbles in that direction as gunfire erupts at the next farmstead over. His wife’s cries grow more distant.

“Gabbi!” he shouts. The acrid smoke of his charred crops bring tears to his bruised eyes.

Adam scans the blackness, catching glimpses of Jackson and his men as their horses wheel and charge among the invaders. Where his hardholder goes, the raiders break. Right now Jackson moves to defend Adam’s rich neighbor to the south.

“Over here!!” Adam cries hoarsely.

Jackson’s man, Grekker rides over, pulling his horse to halt beside him. “What is it?”

“They grabbed my wife and my daughter,” Adam says rapidly. “My farm, everything is on fire. You’ve got to help me.”

Grekkor rubs a bloody brow. “I’ve got to help a lot of people. You got more to go on? It’s dark.” Jackson blows his horn. “I’ve got to go.”

“Jackson said he’d keep us safe,” Adam cries.

“Jackson says a lot of things.” Grekkor spurs his horse and disappears into the night.


Adam cuts off his anguished sob as a child’s shriek cuts across the field. He runs through the sparse foliage. A flash and loud bang reach him before he gets halfway. He blinks and rushes for where the shotgun blast came from.

A minute later he bursts through a tangle of vines. A small body lies on the ground. The child’s head took a direct shot, splattering it across the muddy earth.

“No!! Gabbi!!” he screams. He collapses to his knees, grabbing the broken face and skull, gruesomely trying to put the pieces back together as a cold rain falls from above.

Violet surveys the battlefield from her vantage point atop the Music Bowl. A dozen vehicles race around the structure while powerful voice booms from a VW Beetle covered in spikes.

“I demand your surrender,” Cougar intones. “You can’t possibly hold out.”

Violet takes careful aim at the passenger side window. She fires.

The windshield stars as blood splatters the inside. As the voice stops, a woman in aluminum armor gets out from the back seat and returns fire. The driver revs the engines.

As the other snipers begin to fire, Violet targets the engine.

The volley of bullets potmark the car which grids a halt after only a few feet. Cougar’s men mount a poorly aimed counter attack. A couple bullets strike near the sniper’s makeshift crenelations.

As cries of pain issue from the bug, the rest of the force masses to intercept A.T.’s men. The Militia’s armored truck tips the balance of numbers however. One car peels off to rescue the occupants of the bug.

November hangs back, letting A.T.’s forces lead the way. With the truck in the lead, a dozen men make their way on foot. Cougar’s men race forward on motorcycles and in rusty cars, firing wildly.

Then the armored truck rolls over a landmine.

The explosion throws several Militia fighters into the air and sends November sprawling. The truck crashes down, having been thrust a few feet into the air. The dancer glances around as people silently scream around her. She claws her way up as a powerful ringing resounds in her head.

Violet watches the brilliant blast toss the truck like a toy car. A.T.’s forces are thrown in disarray.

A noise cuts through November’s deadened senses. A rapid ch-thunking as the truck’s heavy machine gun fires. Cougar’s troops cheers change to screams as the tracer lit fire slices through them. A motorcycle is blown in half. Two men become broken splatters.

November looks up. In the smoke and haze, Mox stands illuminated by the tracer fire, his hands firmly gripping the machine gun controls. A.T.’s men rally and return fire.

A voice rises above the gunfire and the ringing. “She’s the one he wants, get her,” Cougar booms.

Arms grab hold of November, dragging her from the battle.

The dancer pulls her blades, sinking them into the armpits of the two dragging her. She slices up and out, leaving one bleeding to death and the other minus an arm. Four more charge her. She dancers between them, stabbing and slicing. Moments later she stands alone among the dead.

A towering figure looms before her in the smoke. Cougar’s long cloak billows in the hot air, while the titan’s mask gleams with twisted metal and bone.

Violet scans the smoke and fire torn battle field. Her sharp eyes pick out Mox as he grits his teeth and fires the 50 caliber again and again. She scans the soldiers as they fire back and forth. A.T.’s white hair appears nowhere. Towards the back, she spies November lit by the flames with her knives out. Corpses surround her. A shape looms in the smoke beyond.

Violet shouts to the riflemen to focus on those of White’s forces approaching the Music Bowl or who are trying to intercept A.T.’s forces.

Back on the ground, November approaches Cougar, unbuckling her armor as she goes. As the gunfire mows down those fixated on her disrobing beauty, she reaches the giant. Gently she tugs loose Cougar’s long coat. She unfasten the leather breastplate, revealing Cougar’s barely feminine form. Bit by bit the giant’s armor drops to the ground, while Violet watches through the crosshairs.

The smoke curls around Cougar’s scarred torso, her breasts heaving as she watches November’s nimble fingers. “So beautiful,” she says.

“Thank you,” November tells her. “Tell your men to drop all of their weapons.”

Cougar’s expressionless mask rises to survey the battlefield. “Surrender! Lay down your weapons!”

Gator’s breathing slows. In his dreams the night gives way to a rainy morning.

Adam kneels in the mud, his hands caked in blood and gore. Grekker rides up, his horse snorting as it trods upon the rusty earth. The warrior cradles a bleeding arm.

“Adam. Adam there’s nothing you can do for her,” he says quietly.

“I have to fix her,” Adam says, numb fingers moving one red bone into place . “I’m suppose to keep her safe.”

“Look we all suffered in this raid.”

“I fucking lost everything,” the farmer says his face bent to the earth.

“Still got your beets,” Grekkor offers weakly. “Look there’s nothing you can do about it. They rode off to the east. Damn bikers.”

Adam gets up and walks back to his house. Rain drips down as he crosses the field. In a clearing he finds something waiting for him. A pool surrounds a dead raider, face down in the mud. Adam pulls a knife from his frozen hand, blind to the sword tattoo on his shoulder.

Distantly, he hears Jackson talking to his neighbor. “Well at least we were able to save the crops. They won’t be coming back here again. Not after the licking we gave them.”

Quietly Adam stumbles to his hut. He waits. He stares at the knife. The rains gradually stop and the sun peeks through the clouds. Slowly it descends. Jackson comes by just as it sets.

“This place is a mess,” the hardholder says.

“You promised,” Adam whispers.

Jackson’s eyes focus on the fields. “They did a real bang up job here. Going to have to replant the whole thing.”

“They took my family, everybody,” he says louder.

“Yeah, you are not going to have enough labor to do that,” Jackson says stroking his chin.

As Jackson contemplates what to do, Adam rises to his feet. He steps forward and sinks the knife into him.

Jackson gags and stares at him in disbelief.

“You promised!” Adam says. “You broke your deal.”

Adam thrusts the blade in down to the hilt.

“You’re just. A serf,” Jackson chokes before collapsing into the mud.

Adam walks east.

As evening falls, the Music Bowl tends to the wounded and enjoys their victory. November stands apart. Suddenly she feels the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.

Wary of the gods, she retreats to a quieter place.

“We require a sacrifice,” the voices demand.

“I gave you six,” she whispers.

“Yes but their blood was diluted by the fighting,” a voice whines. “We need you to perform a ritual. To bleed the victim purposely for the gods.”

“That sounds like murder.”

“Call it what you will,” a bitter whisper replies. “You do this for us and we will give you what you want.”


“This one will be a threat to you if you let her live. The Giant.”

November tenses her body. "She may yet die by my own hand but not now.”

“We will remember that,” the voices whisper angrily.

Taking the Autodoc

Allison and Waters move cinder blocks into place, slowly rebuilding the wall next to the foundry entrance. Jarhead does some last minute work by the van, constructing a jack for raising a truck, the first step in building a working garage.

“I sure hope the people in the Autodoc are okay,” Violet says a short distance away.

Shadow nods, hefting his spear as he throws his satchel across one shoulder. Krin walks up.“Yeah we need to take a look at that," the blood stained technician say. "I hope it’s not another East Wing situation.”

”We all hope not,” she says leading the pair down the tunnel. They emerge outside the Music Bowl where Garber waits in Boo’s yellow SUV.

They find Gator directing his gang to press on without him. “Head out on foot.”

“Alright we’ll cut across and meet you over there,” Morgana says, leading the armed mercenaries into the ruins.

The group loads up the truck, preparing for their expedition. Jarhead hobbles over and throws his gear in the back. As he climbs in, he finds Memo sitting in the back seat.

“Memo, go back to the foundry,” he says sternly.

“But they’ve put a hole in the wall,” she says cringing. ”It’s not safe here.”

“Well maybe you can go make it safe.”

“What if they run another car through the wall?” she says, her dark hair falling in front of her face.

“How do you think you can stop them from running another car through the wall?” he asks. “You are a clever girl, I bet you could rig it that spikes shoot out of the floor and stop the tires.”

“I guess we could do that,” she says, one liquid eye looking up at him.

“Doesn’t that sound like fun?” he asks.

“I guess. But what if we have to get out of there?” she counters.

“You’ve got the van. Tell the others I won’t deduct it from their…food I guess.”

Memo nods haltingly and slips out of the truck.

November looks out the window as the yellow SUV rumbles along the sunken streets of Miami. The sun glares from overhead, momentarily eclipsed by aged palm trees or the occasional corpse strewn lamp post.

As Garber weaves past another wreck, another lamp post blots out the sun. Something metallic hangs below the desiccated remains. November narrows her eyes. A metal basket, bent in the shape of a sphere, rocks back and forth. Something dark hangs within it.

“Stop,” Violet calls, pointing ahead at another basket. Garber brings the truck to a sudden halt. The survivalist gets out and cautiously approaches the nearest one.

Gator climbs on top of the truck and scans the ruins for anything that moves. Meanwhile Violet gets beneath one of the baskets. The sunlight reflects off a glass jar inside, the rays bent by a yellowish liquid inside it. Squinting she makes out a fungal stalk floating within, wires connecting it to some electronics.

“Are there any wires?!” November calls out.

Violet looks but the basket seems welded shut. “It doesn’t look like a trap.”

She calls out what she sees.

“That peaks my curiosity,” Jarhead says, getting out of the truck. He joins Violet and scrutinizes the device.

His mind latches onto the Faraday cage around the fungus and peculiar arrangement of wires. The way it hangs there, it would make a good surveillance device.

Jarhead steps back suddenly, looking around for whoever is watching. “Everyone back away from those, we are not going near any of that. I think they might be able to pop them.”

“They?” November asks.

“Whoever put them up. There’s always a they.”

“I can think of a few possibilities,” Violet says, backing off. “Let’s not go near those.”

Gator calls out to the pair. Jarhead relays their findings. “Sounds like a surveillance system,” the assassin comments.

“But it’s the fungus that gets me, why have it?” the inventor says returning to the SUV. “Maybe it’s a deterent system.”

“Think about it,” Gator says. “We are dealing with people who use spores. Maybe they are using the fungus to communicate.”

November looks up. “We thought White was using the climbers but maybe this fungus has some sort of powers.”

“Sentient fungus,” Jarhead says with a chill.

“Maybe it’s a transmitter into the psychic maelstrom,” the mercenary says, getting off the truck.

“If it has a mind maybe we can negotiate with it,” the dancer adds. “I think it’s a good thing.”

“If you say so…” Jarhead says getting back in.

“Okay, let’s not poke the fungus,” Krin says. “Let’s get to the Autodoc and deal with the potentially homicidal computer.” He frowns. “That sounded better in my head.”

The gang drives on.

They arrive in front of the Autodoc in the late morning. A low mist surrounds the structure while red lights continue to flash from inside.

Gator steps out. He glances about the still scene, searching for danger. His eyes seize on a pair of metal poles stuck into the ground to either side of the main entrance. As he puzzles over their significance, Violet gasps.

A red dot appears on Gator’s armor. Without thinking she rushes forward throwing him to the ground.

A shot rings out, striking where Gator was a moment before.

November ducks for cover in the SUV, huddling with Shadow and Garber. Krin jumps behind the SUV, keeping low to the ground.

November reaches out with her mind. As the gun shot fades, she picks up the odor of swamp water, decay, and something like ozone. Peeking through the truck’s grimy windows, she spots four more of the strange basket arrayed around the hospital. She feels hunted, watched. A sense of yellow eyes, barely human, floats in her mind.

On the other side of the truck Jarhead gets out, hoping to use it for cover. Instead he finds four armed men approaching from ruins. As they raise rifles to him, he shouts and rolls under the SUV.

Two shots crash into the truck above him followed by a strange popping noise. As he rolls to safety, he feels a pain in his leg and finds a six inch dart inbedded in it.

“Shit, shit,” he shouts, pulling it from his flesh and sticking it in a bag.

Gator rolls to his feet, focused on a shattered window on the second floor. He fires once with his MP5. As a crack and curse come from the gaping hole, he rushes over the wide space in mere moments, clambering up a ruined ambulance and up into the room.

He finds the sniper wrestling with a broken rifle. The lanky warrior drops the broken gun and pulls a knife. Gator snorts at his crude armor of recycled tires and ridiculous combat stance.

“Get down on the floor, hands behind your head!” Gator shouts as he trains his MP5 on him.

As the man glances from the gun to his knife, the PA system turns on. “Contaminant detected,” a female voice announces. "In. Section. B. Deploying. Surgeons.”

Back on the hospital side of the SUV, November steps out and begins to slowly and sensually to remove her clothing. She can feel those intense eyes focused on her, frozen by the beauty of her motions.

Violet meanwhile twists behind the SUV and pulls her rifle. Spotting the approaching band of men, she takes careful aim.

The four warriors pick their way through a tumble of bricks that was a convenience store. As one reloads his dart gun, the other three train their rifles on the yellow truck. Violet recognizes the lead figure, Fuse.

He reaches for the grenade launcher duct taped to the barrel of his gun. He shouts to the others, “Get him.”

Violet fires once. Fuse grunts. He looks down to a growing red stain on his stomach. He stumbles backward, letting the rifle swing loose. He grimaces in pain and slumps against a tilted lamp posts, sliding slowly to the ground.

The other three immediately return fire. Violet swings back behind the SUV. She pops back out a moment later firing back in quick succession.

Garber blasts away with his shotgun and soon the pair leave two attackers in pools of blood with the third fleeing into the ruins.

Jarhead scrambles from under the truck. He point to the man fleeing with a tranquilizer gun. “After that guy! I need him!”

Back at the hospital Gator leaves the man to his fate. He jumps from the window, landing on the ambulance with a crash. As glass splinters out of the one remaining window, he takes in the scene. Three men down and a fourth fleeing. He squints as the runner, recognizing Jarhead. “Typical.” He then looks lower at November stripping. As the screams and sounds of electric blade echo from inside, Gator sits down and enjoys the show.

Violet meanwhile clambers a top the SUV and draws a bead on the vanishing figure beyond Jarhead. She fires and he falls forward.

Jarhead cries out in shock. He jogs over and tries to slow his breathing. He finds the man dead, blood spilling from his head. He quickly grabs the dart gun and the three unused darts.

Rushing back, he asks the dying man on the ground, “I can help you, but what in these?”

Fuse coughs up some blood. “Fuck it, they weren’t paying enough anyway.”

“Damn right they weren’t. So what the hell is in this anyway?”

“I don’t know for sure. I know Winona wanted us to shoot anybody we thought was interesting with it. She said it would give her leverage.”

“I know I’m really interesting but damn it,” Jarhead mutters. “Wait! Who?”

Violet pipes in. “She’s one of White’s. She’s a technomystic. She accesses the psychic maelstrom with tech.”

“Oh,” he says with dawning realization. He looks down at the dart and the glittering solution within it.

The device seems to hum on a mental level, flickering with the feel of someone else’s mind. It seems custom made, not an artifact of the Golden Age. They have a hold on me, he thinks, a way into me, leverage to inflict pain.

Jarhead looks back at Violet. “What do you know about this guy?” he says pointing at Fuse.

“He’s kind of a jerk,” she says stowing her weapon.

“Is he a jackass or bully? Or he swarmy?”

“Jackass,” she says heading back to the truck.

Jarhead turns to the bleeding man. “I’ll save you if you protect me.”

“Okay,” Fuse grunts. “Hope you get back soon.”

Meanwhile, November finishes her show and reaches out with her mind to whoever is watching her. She feels the inhuman yellow eyes searching her intensely. The presence is near, emanating from the basket things, somewhere within the hospital.

November reaches out to those eyes. The echoes of the recent gun shots fade away. The sun blazes down on her. The heat surrounds her, burning around her head. A chill rushes up her spines as a whispering of voices surround her.

“We can show you the way,” they say rising to audibility, “if you do us a service. Listen to our offer this evening. That is what we ask.”

November nods and starts to pull her clothes back on. Across the lot, Gator gets up, his lip turned into a slight frown. The screams above him grow distant and stop. The mercenary climbs down and joins the others as they regroup.

Gator rounds the SUV and finds the dying man clutching his gut wound. “That sucks,” he tells him coldly.

“Push here,” Jarhead tells him more helpfully.

As Fuse grips his wound, Gator tells the others, “the Autodoc is still trying to kill people.”

“I can hear that,” Violet says. “I think the best thing for us to go shut it down.”

November rounds the vehicle, donning the last of her clothes. “I established a connection to whoever hung those basket things. I think I can lead us to them.”

“You can do that?” Jarhead says looking up. “That’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah thanks.” she says. She blinks as a mental map appears in her mind. “I think they are this way.”

“If you know the way,” Gator says.

Violet interjects.”We should leave someone outside to keep watch.”

“My team should be here soon,” the mercenary says, as he busies himself gathering the gear of the fallen.

Violet nods and scouts the perimeter. She finds the loading bay sealed up and a hole in West Wing. From the spray of brick, it looks like a grenade blew it open from the inside.

A few hours later Gator’s team arrives. The assassin instructs them on their task. “We are going in, keep a perimeter.”

“We’ll keep an eye on it,” Morgana says, her eyes scanning the landscape.

With that November leads the rest of them into the hole in the West Wing. They find a stripped out bunk room and the Militia’s old base of operations. Everything of worth is gone. November continues down the hall and up a staircase. Once they reach the second floor, she takes them down hall and down another set of stairs. It’s then that they hit a sealed security door.

“I think it’s behind here,” she says, pointing ahead.

Gator spots a keypad on the right side of the doorway. “Anybody knows the code?”

Krin steps forward. “I think so.” The technician punches in a set of 4 numbers.

A red light glows.

“It was the code,” he says.

“Can I try?” Jarhead says, pushing him out of the way.

The technician looks over the panel. 4 digits, 10000 possibilities. That could take forever. He feels around the box, finding the seams. Then he glances up. A security camera swivels to watch them.

“Hey Gator can you stand right…here?” Jarhead says positioning the large warrior. “Cool. Thanks. Don’t move otherwise we all die.”

Garber mutters, “I wonder if my dad’s okay.”

“I hope so,” Violet says.

Something thumps against the other side of door. Gator pulls his sidearm.

“Okay ready to open it,” Jarhead says, pulling on some wires.

“Go,” Gator says.

Jarhead triggers it and dodges out of way. As the doors slide open, two nurses push through the growing gap.

“We gotta get out,” one shouts. “Pilot, we can get out!”

The pair collapse in front of the group. “We got stuck inside,” they babble. “What took you so long?”

“What’s going on in there?” Gator asks. “Is the machine in charge?”

“I don’t know anymore,” the younger nurse says. “It had us in lockdown to do decontamination. We were all sticking together real close. We didn’t want to get separated. You never know what’s going to happen. Then things got weird. The lights started flickering and others said they saw strangers in the hospital. Then people started disappearing.”

“How many are left?” he asks training his weapon on the hallway beyond.

The gray haired nurse answers, “we left to look for our friend Rice but most of the survivors are down in the cafeteria. There are ten of us down there.”

”How did you escape?” Jarhead asks.

“We just did!” the younger woman exclaims. “The computer finished decontaminating us after six days and then five days ago the strange stuff started.”

Jarhead relaxes, reading the fear and relief in their eyes. There’s nothing hidden here.

“What do want us to do?” Gator asks them.

“You need to get the others out,” she says. “They are healthy. You need to get them out before something happens to them.”

“What are you planning to do?”

“We just want to get out of here,” the other nurse answers.
“Can you tell us where to find the computer?” the mercenary says.

“I know where it is,” Krin says from behind him.

Violet steps forward and quickly tells the nurses how to get out. “Gator’s team should look after you.”

November then resumes leading them deeper into the hospital. As they come to a junction, Gator asks, “don’t we want to deal with the cafeteria?”

“We need to shut this place down first,” Violet says.

“It will be easier to get them out once the AI is down,” November adds.

Minutes later they reach a long white hallway deep in the center of the Autodoc.

Krin points down the corridor to the large white steel doors. "Okay this is pretty close to the mainframe. In fact this is almost as close as I’ve ever been. There is a terminal through that door at the far right and that big door at the end is a security door. It’s got a six digit password. I don’t know it. No one knows it. But the mainframe is behind there. Behind yet another door.”

“So I could either manually hijack it or hack it,” Jarhead says stroking his goatee.
November closes her eyes and references her mental map. She opens them and points to the door on the far left. “Where does that door lead?”

“That’s a closet,” Krin says.

She walks down and pulls it open. There is a click as a trigger is pulled.

She twists out of the way as a shotgun blast tears through the wall behind her.

“How about you don’t open doors from now on?” Gator says peering at the trip wire rigged to an ornate shotgun.

“Is everyone alright?” November asks pulling the gun free of its mounting.

“No more doors!” Jarhead says.

The others look into the room and find the shelving torn out of the far right corner. A narrow duct leads through the ceiling and back into the area behind the security door.

“How about I check this one out,” Gator says.

He clambers up and looks inside.

Gator drops back down. “Here’s what I’m looking at. There’s going to be something in there and we got to watch out for more surgeons. So I think the best way in right now is the rocket launcher.”

“But the Autodoc could be destroyed,” Jarhead says.

The PA system turns on. “Intruders detected! Intruders detected! Dispatching. Surgeons.”

“I think we need to break that door now,” Violet says.

Jarhead ducks into the closet with November. The others pile in as Gator strides into the hall. As a whirring echoes down the corridors, he pulls out his rocket launcher, aims and fires.

The blast blasts a hole in the security portal and knocks the doors off the opposite side of the revealed chamber. As the smoke clears, Gator looks through the charred chamber into a sterile room filled with pristine white towers.

Violet and Jarhead dash into the server room. Violet’s sharp eyes pick out a shadow crouched atop one of the towers. She twists around bringing her gun to bear.

As Winona jumps down, Jarhead and she fires. The freaky eyed woman tumbles back into the tower, her hand reflexively clutching at a vaguely gun shaped device. As her eyes glaze over, a mental scream rips into their minds.

As their nerve endings light up, Violet grits her teeth and pushes through the pain. Jarhead screams and grabs his head. He falls to his knees as Violet checks Winona’s vitals.

Assured that her threat is finished, the survivalist turns to helping Jarhead.

Outside, November takes cover in a doorway and aims down the hall. Gator drops the empty tube, turns and slowly retreats into the control room, firing at the waves of five foot tall metallic columns sliding towards him.

The pair fire with their high powered weapons, cutting down the machines as they race forward. Only at the very end do the multilimbed surgeons manage to get close. The saw blades spray sparks off of Gator’s armor while another manages to stick a needle in November’s arm before its power cell cuts out.

Gator looks over the devastation, turns and blasts the main power cable in the ceiling. The servers go quiet as the AI shuts down.

Gator walks into the darkened server room. Winona stares blindly up at the ceiling, blood pooling around her cooling body.

As everyone calms down, Violet heads for the cafeteria closely followed by Garber.

“While you help the people I’m going to get some medical equipment,” Jarhead calls after her. He presses a bloody rag to the side of his head and wanders off.

“I don’t trust yellow eyes here,” Gator tells the others. “Let’s drag her out and burn her.”

Krin nods and the pair drag the remains outside. November follows them outside but everything begins to look crooked. She reaches for one of the nurses they rescued.

“Could you look me over?” she slurs. “There was something in that syringe.”

“It could be a sedative,” the older woman says peering into the dancer’s eyes. “I can run some tests.”

“I need you to do that now,” she orders.

Nearby Gator digs in Winona’s pockets. He pulls a tube filled with shiny specks in a liquid and syringe for delivering them. He also pries loose the device she used and grabs her kevlar lined coat.

“All that’s left is Cougar Violet says leading out Boo and his son. A few nurses also come out, blinking in the afternoon sunshine.

“Jarhead maybe you could look at this gun thing and these vials,” Gater says as the tinkerer wheels out a cart of medical supplies and machinery. “And take this coat for protection.“

“I’ll take care of this,” he says grabbing the vial and holding it up to the light. “So much work to do. This is amazing.”

Jarhead throws the stuff on the cart and then crouches over Fuse. The pale bandit looks up at his weakly. “We need to stabilize you pronto. Garber can you drive me to the Music Bowl real quick?”

“Sure,” the youth says unevenly.

“Okay, this is what I’m going to do,” Jarhead tells them. “I’m going to take this stuff to analyze and take the med stuff back to the foundry. I’ll deal with Fuse and then I’ll be back to fix the Autodoc

Violet nods. “Okay.”

“I guess I can take a look at what we got until then,” Krin says looking up from the kindling for the pyre.

November watches as Jarhead drives off. Her vision blurs and she struggles to stand. Blindly she grabs a nurse. She collapses into her and is gently lowered to the ground. Gator hurries over.

“It seems the hospital sedated her,” the woman tells him. “She’ll be fine in a few hours.”

Violet spends the afternoon surveying the air ducts. The area has been scrubbed clean. As she heads back to the others, she passes a recovery room. Lying in a glass tube is a thin but breathing Joshua.

“No way!” she says pressing a hand up against the window.

Her eyes search the weakened man. He breathes easily. No scratches on his skin or feverish movements. Nothing removed except the disease.

“Joshua, you damn lucky son of a bitch,” she mutters.

November blinks her eyes. A dreary white ceiling beams down at her. As she groggily gets up, she recognizes the white room as one of the recovery chambers at the Autodoc.

Suddenly a chorus of whispers surrounds her. Voices echo the same words imperfectly. “We can help you get what you want November.”

“What’s that?” she mumbles sliding her feet off the bed.

“We can ensure you are never forgotten. That civilization returns.”

“Who are you?” she says standing up.

“We are the gods,” the voices say in synchronicity.

“Following you almost got me a shotgun blast to the face,” she says crankily.

“We cannot see everything," they say. "Not yet.”

“So what can you really promise me?” she asks adjusting her clothes. “What can you deliver?”

“You seek knowledge. We possess all that you could want. You want fame. We can ensure all know your name.”

“What do you want?” she asks, her eyes searching the wall reflexively.

“We want you to be our Messenger,” they intone.

“What’s the message?” she asks, settling on the door knob.

“You must lead the people of Willowtree to conduct the sacrifices we need," they whisper.

“Sacrificing doesn’t sound very civilized,” she comments.

“There are many forms of civilization.”

“I don’t think our definitions gel too well. What form of sacrifice?"

“The gods require blood,” they say as one.

“Whose blood?”

“We leave that choice to you.”

November frowns slightly. “So you want me to lead them on a massacre. I think people won’t forget my name if I murder a lot of people.”

“We want a new order," a voice says. “A new society building on the ruins of what came before,” another continues. “One where the worthy are in charge. Those with the proper devotion,” a third adds. "We will guide you into building their society. We will provide advice on where to grow crops, how to defeat your enemies, how to rebuild the ruins, restore the wonders of the last age.”

“How will you combat the climbers?” she asks.

“There is no need to worry about the climbers,” a voice says.

“You are going to make me immune?”

“Yes if you accept the mantle.”

“Are all your people immune?”

“Only those who have taken on the necessary level of responsibility,” a chorus responds.

“What about Shadow?” she asks, gathering her gear.

“He has not shown himself to be useful to us.”

“If I stop being useful will you withdraw your blessing?”

“Such is the right of the gods,” they intone.

“Are you controlling the climbers?”

“We are all one.”

“I thought you were going to chose Jarhead as Messenger?”

“He is not strong enough.”

“What about White?” she asks with some suspicion.

“White is not to be trusted,” two voices speak together.

“Was he the first Messenger?”

“He has attempted contact,” they say slowly.

“What makes you think I’m worthy?” she asks.

“We’ve been watching you,” a voice says. “Remember that time you got lost in the woods. You called out,” another says. “We’ve been watching a long time,” a third says, “we’ve been watching everyone for a long time.”

“What of Violet’s revolution?”

“Democracy, it’s been tried,” the voice babble. “There are always forces that corrupt it. Men cannot be trusted.”

November thinks for a minute before saying, “I will be your Messenger for as long as it serves both our purposes.”

She feels a sense of approval as her skin crawls for a moment. Now to learn what they really are up to, she thinks.

Jarhead watches Garber drive off and gets to work. As he approaches the foundry, ne notes the fortified door and tire spikes in the hall with a glint of approval.

With Allison’s help he gets Fuse stabilized after a few hours.

“That enough for now,” he tells her and head to the van to rest.

Before he makes it two steps a barrage of gunfire and shouting is heard from outside.

“Again? Already?!” Jarhead exclaims. He takes the stairs up to the top of the Music Bowl. From the ruined bleachers he sees a dozen vehicles circling the Music Bowl while a loud speaker blares a high pitch voice.

“Surrender! Throw down your weapons and accept White as your overlord!”

Playing at the Music Bowl

November makes her way back to her dressing room after a long day of rehearsals. In the fading light she notices a young girl slipping out the door into the Music Bowl’s subbasements.

That’s odd, she thinks before noticing the wain child’s mottled green eyes. The spots!

“Hey”, November calls out to the child, slipping off a damp scarf from one arm. The girl’s attention fixed, the dancer approaches the urchin. She gracefully slips off the girl’s faded and stretched T-shirt and binds her with it.

“What were you doing in there?” she asks, smiling charmingly.

The crowd bustles outside, swollen to twice its normal size. While the fading tones of the sacred organ echo from inside, the smell of savory mushrooms waft up from the tent city camped outside the wrecked stadium.

A few people amuse themselves with a visiting carnival but most of the refugees keep a wary eye to the east, where their old homes and White’s forces lurk. A cluster of nurses talk about returning to the Autodoc.

“It should have opened days ago,” Krin comments to a colleague. “Even if they were all infected, the hospital could have processed them all by now.”

While the nurses nod in agreement, Jarhead quickly passes by with his latest catch of rats. He hurries back to the foundry and away from the hordes of people.

Inside he finds his employees hard at work. Allison and Memo polish up the motorcycle for Wisher while Waters makes final adjustments on the night vision goggles. He smiles at the progress. Even his lost tools have been replaced.

He glances around but Shadow is nowhere to be found. Must be searching for the Messenger among the refugees, he decides, recalling the scan he did when they arrived. He frowns as he considers the melted brick that was the damaged half of the Tesla sphere. I need to fix that.

It can wait until tomorrow, he decides. Wisher should be by with the last of his payment and I can work on other projects then.

As night falls, Violet discusses her next steps with an ex-mercenary called David and her allies.

“We need to deal with White,” the well armed man says. "Look at what he’s done to Miami thus far. At this point the only people able to stand against him are here.”

“So everyone willing to stand against him are in one spot,” AOL comments.

“Yeah, that sounds like a bad idea now that I say that.” He glances east. “We should expect an attack.”

“We should,” Violet says. The plain woman starts adjusting some of the bandages over her burns.

“Where are those mercenaries?” David asks. “We need to be harder to hit, we need to be more spread out.”

Violet looks up from her work. “Where are those mercenaries?” she asks sharply.

November leans over the dirt covered child. “What were you doing in the food larder?” she asks kindly.

“I had to spread those,” the girl says, motioning to a pouch.

November pulls it open, her cold eyes never leaving the child. She loosens the drawstring, revealing dozens of granular spores. Smiling to the child, she lets the pouch slide closed and steps away. “How much did you cover?”

The fair haired child scrunches her eyes. “Uh, lots.”

November adjusts the bindings to cover the child. Then she glances about, spotting an official of the Music Bowl. She calls out to the white robed figure.

“What’s going on?” he asks walking closer.

“I saw this girl come out of the subbasement,” November says. “She says she was instructed to spread spores.”

The priest steps away. “Oh dear! I must tell the inner council.”

November catches his hand. “What’s to stop someone from taking the infested food?”

With dawning horror, he shouts to a gathering of his comrades. “Guard the doors, someone has been spreading spores in the food supply!”

A steady beeping intrudes on Gator’s sleep. The tempo jumps as sensations of pain and muggy heat leak into his awareness. His eyes flicker open.

To his left, wires connect electrodes to a monitoring device. Fuzzily he tries to focus on what happened. He recalls pleasant days. Days before the killing, when his wife and child were alive.

He drifts back under. His bandaged brow furrows as with the memory of distant gunshots. He dreams of things moving in darkness. The distant beeping speeds up. His wife screams. A shot rings out. His daughter, she-

Gator’s eyes snap open. Sore muscles spring into action, lifting the muscular man into sitting position. He blinks. A plastic tarp covers the ceiling, lit by a single hanging lightbulb. As the machine continues to beep, he spots shadowy figures outside of the tent.

‘"What?!” one exclaims.

“They put spores in the food,” another repeats.

“What are we going to do?” the first whines.

Gator shifts his legs off the bed. His skin screams under the thick bandages. Sliding to the ground, his bare feet find concrete. A mirror mounted on a cabinet reflects a mess of bandages across his face and down under his thin hospital gown.

The mercenary takes stock of his situation. Weathered concrete makes up the back wall, pockmarked with old bullet holes. A couple crates and a small table with medical supplies complete the furnishings. Gator snatches a scalpel off the table and silently pads to the crates.

Inside he finds scraps of his clothing, blood stained and charred. Beneath that he uncovers his heavy Kevlar armor. Glancing to the entrance, he investigates to the left hand side of the room. Lifting the plastic tarp, he finds another unoccupied hospital bed. He grabs his gear and slips out.

A long beep rings out as the electrodes pull off. Once in the other ‘room’, Gator grabs some other gowns from another grungy cabinet and dresses, placing his armor over several layers of hospital gowns. As the sound of people grows closer, he slips through the opposite side of the tent.

He finds a supply room. Freestanding shelves hold meager supplies of drugs, clothing and medical gear. Gator pulls some scrubs over his armor and covers his face with a mask. Then he slips out into the night.

A concrete ceiling looms overhead extending out to what were once floor to ceiling windows. Inside what was his tent several people talk excitedly. Elsewhere it seems everyone has gone to sleep. As he turns to leave he spots a gun barrel sticking out of a crate near his tent. It could be his sniper rifle.

He cautiously approaches. He hears people talking inside. “Where did he go? He should be here?”

Gator pulls out the soot covered sniper rifle. He dimly sees his MP5 deeper within as well as plenty of knives. With a quick heft, he picks up the entire boxes and stalks back to the supply room.

He lurches inside before the others can see him. As he sets down the heavy box, he hears a metallic crunch.

“Oh great,” he mutters. He digs out his weapons one by one checking for damage. After stowing his knives, he puts the guns and the rocket launcher in a net bag from one of the shelves, wrapping them in old scrubs.

Then he quietly walks out into the night.

Jarhead makes some adjustments to the motorcycle’s engine. He starts as Allison taps him on the shoulder.

“Did you hear?” the young woman asks.

“Hear what?”

“The food supply at the Music Bowl she blurts out. “They said it’s all infected with spores. I’m glad we didn’t eat any of those mushrooms.”

“Mushrooms?” he says absently turning back to his work.

“Yeah that’s what they eat around here. It sounded a little better than eating rat but at least with rat you know what you are getting.” She moves to the other side of the bike to face him. “You think it was White

“It is always White,” he says tiredly, “he’s the bogey man.”

“What does White even look like? All I know is his name.”

Jarhead scratches his head. “A guy as far as I know. That’s a good question. We probably should find that out.”

“I guess when Gator wakes up he’s going to have to find out. Isn’t he supposed to kill White or something? No one tells me stuff.”

“It is a need to know basis,” the scrawny man explains. “I don’t need to know and thus you don’t either. More importantly are the night vision goggles finished?”

She smiles and holds them out to him. “Yes, I was just putting the finishing touches on them.”


“We got everything done except the recasting,” she informs him.

“That takes more finesse than you’ve got,” he says.

“Need anything more from us tonight? Otherwise I’ll get Waters to bed.”

“Help me lock up the foundry, just in case someone comes looking for rat.”

As Violet and David stroll around the dimly lit arena, they notice a refugee running to a cluster of people around a campfire.

“Spores! Spores in the food!” he tells them hurriedly. “The priest said there were-”

A scarred woman joins them. “Someone was spreading spores in the mushroom farms!”

“What are we going to eat?” a high pitched voice asks. “We are all going to get the climbers!”

Then she runs off to tell others.

Violet looks to David. “I think we should investigate.”

They approach the growing crowd. “What is going on?” David barks.

“Well I heard it from Yen,” someone stammers. “He said they caught a climber girl trying to spread spores through the subbasement.”

Violet grabs David. “Let’s check it out.”

As they hurry to the nearest door, a man in a bloodstained smock stops them.

“Have you seen Gator Krin asks.

“No,” Violet tells him.

“He’s missing,” the technician explains. “His weapons and gear are also missing.”

“If I see him I’ll let you know.”

“Alright, I’ll keep searching.”

As two white robed guards secure the doorway to the subbasement, November continues her questioning of the infected girl. “Where are the other bags?” she asks anticipating more bad news.

“They are with Joey and Trout the child answers.

“That’s who,” the dancer corrects her. “Where are they?”

“They were going to go to the other entrances.”

November glances about. There are five entrances to the tunnels beneath the stadium. Five that are known. “I want you to wait here and answer any questions the priests ask of you.”

The girl dumbly nods.

November moves swiftly to the other doors. She finds a gateway sealed with a barricade of wood and wire and flanked by guards at the east entrance. As she approaches the next pathway, she collides with Violet.

“Ouch! Violet watch where you are going!”

“Very funny,” Violet says regaining her balance. “What’s going on? I heard there was trouble.”

“Well yeah if contamination of the food supply is trouble,” she says quickly. “I heard there are two other intruders working on contaminating the rest. I’m checking that all of the entrances are guarded so we can catch them.” Spying a thicket of robed figures ahead by the ladder down into the tunnels, she continues, “I still need to check the north staircase and the west elevator shaft.”

“I’ll check that the staircase,” Violet offers.

November nods and they split up.

Gator circles the huge round structure. The only stadium he recalls nearby is the Music Bowl. He can’t recall visiting before but it seems very full. Large crowds of people camp outside the ruins. They cast fearful glances east while chattering about the recent advances by White. As he wanders a new topic comes to dominate their nervous talk.

“We came all this way just we could have something to eat and not be zombies,” Gator overhears from a mangy knot of young men. “And now it’s freakin infested with spores!”

“Nah, nah,” a spiky haired man says. “I heard there’s another food supply. There’s this guy who has been collecting rats. He’s set himself up in that little workshop area.”

“We should go and take his rats,” the first man replies. “Then we don’t need to worry about the mushrooms. Plus meat would be tastier. Real meat that isn’t radioactive.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” a third mutters.

“Let’s go get that rat meat,” a pair of others cheer.

Sounds like a good idea, Gator thinks to himself. His stomach grumbles and sloshes. He trails behind them as they enter the Music Bowl.

They head into the tunnels beneath the stands. Dirty cinder block walls make up the walls, lit by dying fluorescent lights. The air grows hotter and the sounds of machinery at work overwhelms the babble from outside. The gang comes to a stop in front of a pair of metal doors.

The spiky haired leader pulls at the handles. They open a quarter inch before the chains inside hold them fast.

“Bastards locked themselves in,” the red haired complainer shouts. “I bet they were behind it. They knew this was going to happen.”

The pair bang on the door. Jarhead’s muffled voice calls out, “no business except party business.”

“Let us in,” the leader shouts.

“Uh, no.”

Recognizing the voice, Gator casts his eyes for another way in. He spots a side passage that should bring him close to the area behind the door. Quickly he slips away.

“Let’s just break it down,” one of the ruffians suggests.

“If you do not get away from the door, it will go badly for you!” Jarhead warns.

“What are you going to do?” the leader says with a laugh.

Inside Jarhead connects electrical leads to the door and waits. A moment later someone pounds on the door. He immediately hears a cry of pain.

After some cursing, someone fires a gun at door. The tinkerer smiles as he hears the bullet ricochet down the tunnel.

“I have an idea,” a muffled voice says. Then the gang gets quiet.

Elsewhere Gator slowly and carefully chips away the mortar between several cinder blocks. He gently slides them out of the way and slips inside.

Jarhead turns back to his work to find the gunlugger calmly leaning on a workbench.

“Gator! How the hell did you get in?” Jarhead says with a start. “You didn’t come down the chimney?”

“You left the back door open,” he says smiling horribly.

“I what?”

“Seems like you have a problem here,” Gator states.

“Seriously how did you get in?” Jarhead looks behind the bandaged man. No clue remains of his entrance. “How?”

“It looks like you might need to get out,” Gator comments.

Jarhead shakes his head. “Well it’s good to see you up on your feet.”

“I’m still feeling a bit sore,” the mercenary admits. “What day is it?”

“It has been about two weeks.”

“That sounds about right.” He sets his weapons on the bench. “I haven’t found my barter yet.”

“That I can’t help you with but here’s a rat,” the tinkerer says handing him a charred piece of rodent on a stick. “Was there something I need to worry about? They seemed like putzes.”

“Nothing right away,” Gator says biting into his rat. “They went to get something.”

Jarhead glances across the large room to his van. Allison yawns and gets up, leaving Memo and Waters to sleep inside.

“In the meantime,” Gator asks, “have you seen Morgana or anybody else around? What happened at the Autodoc?”

“The Autodoc sealed up because of the spores,” Jarhead explains. “It has to cleanse itself.”

“Wasn’t that supposed to open a week ago?” Allison says.

“Yeah, it keeps getting delayed,” he tells Gator. “So we’ve been chilling in the Music Bowl. This is the foundry, this is my space.”

Allison turns to the injured man. “Are you okay Gator?”

“I’ve been better. I’ve been worse, definitely been worse.” He turns back to his rat, picking the meat from the bones. Jarhead offers him another rat. Gator waves him off. “One will be enough for now. Another would just end up on the floor. I’ve done this before.”

Gator picks a scrap of meat from his teeth and tosses the remains in a bin. “So did everybody make out alive? That we care about.”

As Jarhead lists off people who escaped, Allison interjects, “ Boo didn’t make it out.”

“That’s too bad,” Gator says.

”Yeah. But shit happens,” Jarhead says.

“Does that mean we have a vehicle open?” the mercenary asks.

“I think Violet gave the keys to his son,” the young woman says.


The wiry man adds, “Most of us made it out okay. Your mercs have been busy. I haven’t seen them in the past couple days.”

Allison nods. “They went off someplace.”

“Maybe they got a job?” Gator guesses.

Suddenly the roar of an engine reverberates from the entranceway. After an initial growl, it grows louder and louder. Jarhead rushes to the steel doors.

A crowd blocks November as she approaches the shaft entrance. She cranes her neck to see four men and women in robes trying to hold back the mob as they shout their concerns. “Is the food safe? What are you going to do?”

November gets atop a ruined counter. “People!” she shouts. "You are not doing any good here. The council is working on the issue. The best we can do for now is take stock of what food we know is clean and let these people do their job.”

A tall figure in green steps out of the crowd. “Someone should talk the council immediately. They need to respond to this.”

“Go talk to the council,” she suggests.

“They’re going to talk to us?” he says. “We are refugees.”

“I can talk to them if you like,” she offers.

The crowd murmurs and nods. Slowly they disperse.

November approaches the relieved guards. “Did you see any signs that someone entered the tunnels?”

“We arrived just before the crowd,” a fair headed priestess explains. She glances down the shaft. “The rope ladder is still up and coiled. I don’t think anyone was here before us.”

November looks down into the darkness. She reaches out with her mind. Joey, she calls.

She feels no connection, no sensation. Only a yawning darkness. Shiver runs up her spine as the maelstrom swirls through her thoughts, picking at her secrets.

Violet arrives at the stairwell to find the rotten wooden door unguarded. Her sharp eyes pick out recent scuff marks on the muddy floor. The distant sound of something falling echoes up from below.

Pulling on her gas mask, Violet pushes the door open. As she descends the shadow stairs, she hears a high pitch voice whimpering. At the base of the stairs she spots a pair of children. One lies face down in the thick soil while the other bends over him shaking his shoulder.

“Joey, joey get up!” the child cries.

Violet shines a light on the prone figure. The dirty haired child looks about ten. His head lies cracked open, a pale stalk sticking out a foot from his ruined skull.

The other child looks up with moist green eyes.“Joey won’t get up,” she cries as her forehead bulges and throbs.

A grimace crosses her face as Violet trains her rifle on the child. With a single shot she dispatches the doomed girl.

Jarhead’s mind races as he makes for the entrance. He reaches out, visualizing what lies beyond the steel doors. The rattling of the roar and the crunch of the vehicle’s tread forms the faint outline of large rusty pickup in his mind. The doors stand firm. But are they firm enough?

“What’s that?” Allison asks, sleepily. She turns to the far side of the shop as Gator steps out of the way of the door, pulling his MP5. “ Waters stay in the van,” she calls back.

Jarhead reaches the door and flicks the light switch.

The truck crashes with the doors, sending one flying outward and off of its hinges. A spray of brick flies through the room as Allison ducks for cover. As the pickup comes to a halt in the shattered entranceway, the other door fall to the floor, revealing a bruised and broken Jarhead.

Gator moves to cover, taking in the blood stained star pattern on the passenger side. As the driver shakes off the trauma, the rest of the gang moves into room.

“I suggest you get your things and get out of here,” Gator shouts, revealing himself. “Leave the pickup though, it’s not going anywhere.”

“We need to get our food,” a squinty eyed man yells.

“There’s food elsewhere.”

“Who are you?” he says pointing a rusty handgun at him.

“I’m Gator,” the mercenary says coldly.

“I don’t know who you are Gator but there are more of us than there are of you. Get lost.”

Gator grins and raises his gun. “I suggest you put your things on the ground boys.”

A man with spiky hair puts a hand on the other’s shoulder. “That’s the guy! That’s Gator. He’s the one that got blown up in the Autodoc. They said he was dead.”

“I heard about that guy,” a red haired man says, wiping his face. “I heard he murdered a whole holding once.”

“Look!” the boss of the gang says. “He’s got a fucking rocket launcher on his back! We’re going to get murdered!”

“Let’s get out of here!” the first speaker says. In mad scramble, they run and drop their weapons, leaving a pile of old pistols, knives, clubs and a pair of shotguns.

Jarhead picks himself off the ground. Stiffly he dusts off some of the debris from his outfit. He looks at the pile and steps forward.

“That is all of my stuff,” Gator says. He smiles and grabs a couple of guns.

“My associates need some way to defend themselves,” Jarhead says, wincing as he takes another step. “They are lacking in that.”

Allison rushes to his side. “Are you okay Jarhead? You look really hurt.”

Jarhead stumbles to a chair. “Yeah not thinking so good right now.”

“There is blood coming out of your ear,” she says.

“Yes, it does that.”

Gator wanders over. “I’ll sell it to you for something,” he offers.

“Don’t we have that thing for him?” Allison asks.

“It’s ready?” the warrior asks.

Jarhead starts to rise from his seat. “Yes, ow! Go get it.”

Allison rushes off and returns with a set of high tech goggles.

Gator examines them appreciatively. “How about this? You can keep all of this stuff if you keep my gear in good order.”

“How about I keep your stuff in good order if you keep us in good order,” Jarhead suggests. “Shit like this is not conducive for further work. Keep you supplied and happy if you keep us fit and happy.”

“What level of safe?” the hard man asks.

As Allison dabs his ear, Jarhead explains, “if we go start shit, you don’t have to finish it. But if someone is trying to do something like this, assistance will be appreciated.”

“OK. I’m alright with that.”

“Good, you can leave your stuff with us, we’ll take a look at it. I suggest you stick around for now. And hey look you’ve got a new car.”

Gator looks at the broken heap. “I’m not sure it’s going to work right now.”

“We’ll give that a look over too.” Jarhead grunts. “In the morning. I think I’ll take a nap.” Then he slumps over.

Memo walks over rubbing her eyes. “We should put him in the bed with the straps so he doesn’t fall out.”

“Does he normally fall out?” Gator asks the child.

“He doesn’t normally bleed from his ears.”

He shrugs. “Do whatever you want.”

Violet hurries over to November as the crowd disperses. “We’ve got a problem.”

“Another one?” the dancer asks.

“We’ve got one kid that sprouted a stalk and another one that almost did.” Violet’s face hardens. “I had to put that one out of her misery. But anyway we need to do something,”

“Yes. I was heading to meet the council to see what they are going to do.”

“Well nobody can go in there until that area has been cleaned out.”

November looks at Violet. “There were guards on your door right?”

“Not when I got there. There are now.”

The pair head for the council chambers. A few minutes later they arrive outside the private box where a few high priests lurk, discussing recent events. A pair of guards in pure white robes decorated in silver chimes stop them at the door.

“What is your business?” says the one wielding a bronze staff.

“I wish to speak with the council about the crisis with the food,” November says gently. “I was the one who discovered it. My friend here has additional information.”

“You will have to remain outside. Only those within the order can enter the council chamber.”

November leans forward and touches his arm. She whispers, “I don’t think you understand….”

As she bats her eyes at the flustered guard, the other man interjects. “Remember your duties.”

A figure steps in from behind the women. Wisher pulls back his long dark hair and says, “don’t concern yourself with that Pellet, everything is in order. Grip, you were saying?”

Grip adjusts his collar. “I suppose under the unusual circumstances we can make an exception. Pellet please tell the council that there is important news to be brought by one outside the order.” As Pellet disappears into the private booth, Grip continues, “my Lady Orleans, perhaps we can step over here so we can discuss things.”

The pair step into a corner and quietly discuss an arrangement. November gives him a kiss and promise of a private showing.

A moment later Pellet returns and shows November and Violet inside.

As they enter the dimly lit room, Violet’s eyes search out what threat lies ahead. As she focuses on the pale blue lights, her mind opens to the psychic maelstrom. The danger of the climbers seems to recede, replaced by a sense of self-devouring hunger.

The women approach two semi-circular tables, each ringed by four cloaked figures. As they reach a space between them, a female voice addresses them. “What news do you bring to us?”

November turns to face each member as she speaks. “I helped disperse a crowd of people and stop the panic as the news of the infestation spread. I said I would ask you what you intend to do for them. My friend has seen something as well.”

“What is it that you have seen?” An elderly man asks Violet.

Violet repeats her encounter with the two dying children.

The assembled elders whisper to each other. After a moment the old woman states, “this is dire news. With so many others here, it had already put a strain on our food supplies. This blow places us in a precarious situation.”

“What do you intend to do about it?” November asks.

“We need to secure more food,” the elder continues. “The nearest safest location to do so would be Taters. We need to draft an expedition to seize Taters.”

November seizes on the council members’ shifting stance and the gentle adjustments of their robes. The food situation has them scared, she thinks. They don’t care who gets hurt fixing it.

Violet steps forward. “One thing that would take the strain off would be getting White out of the way.”

“Unfortunately he is too well defended on the Big Ship a stooped old man says. “Taters is easier for us to take and deprives him of a food source.”

“Those people need to eat too.”

“They have thrown their lot in with White,” he replies.

Violet grits her teeth. “There is a difference between throwing in with a bully and not standing up to him because you are afraid of being knocked down. Maybe if you offer them protection, they might be willing to trade you.”

“I’m sorry did we ask your opinion?” asks another priestess.

Violet’s eyes light up. “Look White already causing enough trouble as is. Do you really want to be starting more conflict right now?”

The council begins to talk over her, discussing their next step. “Wasn’t there a group of mercenaries-

”I do not like being ignored!” Violet shouts. “Now look! I did not come all the way down here to watch you destroy what order is left in Miami. Work with Taters, offer them protection for food. Don’t steal their livelihood. Be better than White.”

The council stare at her and each other over a long moment of silence. The old woman coughs. “Alright we will do it your way. We will ‘liberate’ them and give them a deal.”

“Thank you.”

November addresses the council with a smile and submissive gaze. “We still need to reassure the refugees that things will improve. Perhaps if you give them a focus, such as helping liberate Taters, it will distract them from rioting. Provide them hope and a sense of purpose.”

After a few quick whispers, the old priestess replies more warmly, “we will send a messenger to relay that useful idea.”

“And make sure your water supply is secure as well,” November adds.

“Thank you November. Please let us finish our preparations in privacy.”

With that the women are led out.

As the sun rises over the Music Bowl, Violet looks over the water supply. A network of tarps cover a third of the remaining stands, funneling rain water and dew into a huge barrel. A dozen armed men and women watch from the heights above it for any attempts to access it. A few chat casually about an attempt to break into the foundry last night.

“I heard they smashed through a wall with a car,” one remarks.

Violet finds November and they head by Jarhead’s workshop.

They find the wreckage of a pickup lodged in the entryway. Squeezing past, they are greeted by Allison and Memo.

“Can I offer you some rat?” Allison asks as she slides a metal plate of meat to Gator.

”What happened here?” November asks. She glances at Jarhead, who is strapped down to a stretcher.

“They crashed a vehicle through the wall,” Allison explains. “They wanted our rats.”

Violet turns to Gator. “We had some nurses asking about your whereabouts. You alright?”

“We are fine,” Gator says.

“Jarhead got smashed into a wall!” the fair haired woman corrects him.

November looks at the wall beside the entrance where a distinct imprint remains.

Memo pokes Jarhead. “He was bleeding out of his ears. It is all crusty now.”

November turns to Jarhead. The battered man twists in his slumber. Though moaning lowly in pain, she can see he will be fine in the long run. The sounds of the foundry fill her ears: crackling flames, spinning machines, and a hammering from Waters’ work area. These tools remind her of Jarhead. This injured man is simply a damaged tool, an implement to be put to use by someone else.

A blood tinged tear leaks from an eye as he stirs.

“Hey he’s waking up,” Memo says poking him.

Jarhead’s skull pounds with pain. He struggles to get up. “Ow! Why am I tied down?”

“So you don’t fall out.”

“That a pretty good reason,” he remarks. “Now untie me.”

As Memo releases him, Allison brings a freshly roasted batch of food to the table. “Rat anybody? Nice and fresh!”

“I need to find more things than rat,” Jarhead grumbles, hobbling to the table.

“If we went closer to the swamp we could try to catch a crocodile,” Allison says.

“There’s an expedition to liberate Taters November suggests. “They kind of have some food.”

“So we can get potatoes?” the tinkerer asks.

“The council mentioned something about mercenaries. I think they hoped to use them.” November reads some confusion on Gator’s ruined face. “Gator are you not talking to them?”

“I just woke up yesterday,” he explains. “I’ve been asleep a couple of weeks. It’s been hard to contact me. I was hoping you would know where they are.”

Violet cocks her head. “I saw Morgana moving among the refugees recently arranging minor gigs. But I haven’t seen her or her men recently, not since they went up the north road. Wire told me they were going to be gone a few days. That was two days ago. They might even be back already.”

“OK, maybe I’ll take a look for them. But we need to take care of this White business.”

“Can you talk a little quieter please?” Jarhead says. “My head hurts.”

“Let’s let Jarhead rest,” Violet says.

Shadow bursts in. “What happened here!?”

“He’ll be fine,” Gator says.

“I need my head for thinking,” the injured man says sliding into a seat. “Thinking is important to me.”

The group moves outside the foundry and discusses their next step, while Jarhead rests. A few of Violet’s Republicans join them.

Garber asks, “Are we going to do something? There is still no word from the Autodoc. We need to break in there.”

Violet nods. “It has been too long. Let’s get ready and check it out. Does anybody want to come with us?”

November asks, “what can we do to get in?”

“Nobody’s tried breaking down the doors,” Garber suggests.

“Who has been trying to get in?” Gator asks.

“The nurses have been sending a team every few days.”

“And it is still closed?”

“Yes. I went with them last two times,” the youth says, a frown crossing his face.

“We found ways to break out,” Violet says. “Those places should be weakened.”

“Yes,” Garber says nodding. “I poked around the hole in the West Wing and that place is clear to the end of the hall where the security door is sealed up.”

“I need to get a new mask before I come along,” Gator says.
“Do what you have got to do and we will reconvene in a couple hours,” Violet says.

The third refugee Gator asked actually knew something.

“I saw them they just came back a few hours ago,” the woman says, the braids from her half shaved head covering one eye. “They were dragging something on a sled.”

A quarter hour later, he finds the gang sitting in a section of the stands drinking.

“I thought you were dead,” Morgana says tipping back a brown bottle.

“I takes more than that to kill me,” Gator says getting into the middle of the pack. “I heard you were busy.”

“We’ve been doing a few jobs here and there,” she says. “A bit of guarding and delivery. It’s been pretty profitable. Right guys?”

As the cheer dies down, Gator asks, “I heard you dragged something back?”

“One of the uppity ups wanted us to retrieve something from the Autodoc she says adjusting her shoulder pad.

“So you’ve been to the Autodoc?”

“By it, not deep inside it,” she says with a quiet laugh.

“We were thinking stopping by there. It’s taking too long to open up.”

“It is a shame,” she says with a nod. “That was a pretty good a place to get patched up. It doesn’t seem that the nurses can do quite as good a job without the hospital.”

“I‘m going to see what I can drum up with the head nurse for reopening it,” he tells her. “Oh and be careful with the food here, someone got spores into the stores.”

Wire spits out his drink.

“I don’t think the drinks have problems yet.”

“That’s good to know,” the old mercenary says, wiping his mouth.

“It will be getting a bit hungry around here,” Morgana comments.

“Yes, we are looking to go to Taters in a couple days see what we can do there," Gator says. "Just make sure you don’t make the same deals I do. I’ll need the leverage. Oh and I got some more weapons, that people left lying around.”

“We’ll look at them,” she says. “But if they are from people around here they are probably not better than what we got.”

“Probably not but you never know.”

“Maybe they got bullets.”

Elsewhere November chats with of the nurses. “What are the computer’s defenses?” she asks Iris.

“Well, it depends," the thin woman says. "if it can get a hold of you. The surgery machines are supposed to remain in the surgery rooms. But some of them can move on their own.”

“Is there some way to shut them down?”

“You could kill the main power I guess,” she says chewing some old mushrooms slowly.

“So there is not a password?” the dancer says.

Barnum might have known if there was but maybe no one did. No one alive that is.”

Wisher arrives at the foundry later in the morning. He focuses all of his attention on the gleaming motorcycle Jarhead built for November, ignoring the mechanic’s pain.

“I plan to give it to her when we start the festival in a couple days,” he says placing the drab sheet back over it.

“Wonderful. I can stay here right?” Jarhead asks, looking over the final payment.

“In the foundry?”

“Yeah, you don’t use it anyway.”

Wisher creases his brow. “We do use it.”

“Yeah but you dabble,” the tinkerer says.

“How about this?” Wisher says. “If you can fix the hole in the wall you can stay.“

“Done and done.”

As Wisher wheels his prize out, Jarhead turns to Memo. “I don’t know how Gator got in here. Find the where the breach is.”


The clouds begin to break as Lily and Starbuck return from their recruitment mission. On top of coming back alone, Violet grimly notes their sniffles and coughs. Lily approaches her.

“My family isn’t going to help,” the slender woman says. “They want to be seen getting involved.” She pulls her thin lips into a scowl. “Plus none of them want to risk their own skins.” Lily coughs and digs into the leather sack slung over her shoulder. “However even they see the trouble White is bringing. They gave me some funds to pay for some mercs.”

Violet takes the barter as Starbuck joins them. She tells them, “Boo and the others are resting by the back corner. I’ll bring some herbal tea over in moment.”

Starbuck smiles wanly and guides Lily over there.

A few minutes later Violet joins the majority of her followers with a hot pot of tea. Joshua and Scarlet, the healthy ones remain absent. As the others sip their tea, Violet clears her throat, “we have a couple of people in the movement that I’m a little concerned about. I have evidence that casts doubt on their allegiances. I have an idea to ensure their loyalty and I would like your opinion on it."

Boo looks up from his cup of tea and looks where Joshua and Scarlet were sitting earlier. The older man shivers under his blanket. “Okay what’s the idea?” he asks.

“It’s not fair to assume someone is guilty without due process," she explains. "But we are war and we need find out. My idea is we send them on a mission to test their loyalty.”

The gathering falls into an agitated discussion of how best to test them. Amid the coughs and sniffles, AOL’s voice says, “If they are agents of White, we want to make sure whatever they let slip won’t harm our side.”

“We don’t want it to be an obvious trap either,” Violet adds.

A few mummer about sending them to the Big Ship. Boo coughs and shoots it down. "Besides if they make contact, we need to have someone to watch them do so.”

AOL sniffles. “The best way to handle it? There’s no place we can send them where they actually can hurt White. So we should give them a way to seemingly betray us that doesn’t actually harm us. You’ve got a deal going with A.T. right?”

“Yes,” Violet says. “He’ll hold back and let us do our thing.”

“So what do we know about what A.T. is bringing in? We can send them to a holding, not too far away, telling them to scout it out cause A.T. is going to move his men in there. Then we see what happens. If White’s forces scatter or mass for a counter attack, then we know that the information is not secure.”

“I like it. If we are watching, then we can also get a count of what their forces are like.”

AOL sips more tea. “Of course we’ll need somebody to go scout it.”

Violet strokes her chin. “Perhaps somebody who is well.”

“Yeah that seems to be in short supply at the moment. I mean you seem to be in good health. And it’s not like you’d have to get very close.”

“Alright,” Violet says.

November slips out of another Militia planning session when she spots Mox giving her another glance. The big man’s eyes flick back toward the meeting room.

“Hey Mox what’s wrong?” she asks with a sweet smile.

“Nothing," the soldier says. "It’s just I was hoping you’d spend more time with me than with the boss. That’s all.”

“We’re together now,” she explains, her lithe form drawing close to his. “What were you expecting?”

“I don’t know," he says letting his massive shoulders relax. "I got a nice allotment from the ration cards. Maybe we can have dinner together?”

“Sure.” Her smile flattens slightly. "You know me from before Mox. You know I’m pretty open about things. I don’t want you to feel bad but I also don’t want you to feel possessive.”

“Yeah, I know you are your own woman.” Mox points with one brown figure outside. "But what about that other guy?”


Mox nods. “I know don’t be possessive but he’s been throwing a lot of glances at me lately.”

November pauses a moment. “I can talk to him. He’s concerned that we’ve got somebody betraying us,” she explains. "He doesn’t know you like I do. I’ll talk to him about it.”

“Alright,” he says. “A lot of people have got that possessive thing. I’ll try to keep it down. I’ll see you for dinner.”

Jarhead checks his traps in the drizzling rain. He pulls a cage from the collapsed sewer line. Inside he finds a massive rat, still twitching from the spike thrust through its head.

The tinkerer finishes it off.

Shadow helps him carry the haul back to the Autodoc. On the way his guardian says, “have you made any progress on your mission?”

“Yes,” the wiry man says. "I do have one or two leads that the child has helped me look into.”

“Good. The village is looking forward to the message,” savage replies.

As the pair return to the Autodoc, November intercepts them. “Looks like you guys did well.”

“It’s not a bad haul,” Jarhead says.

Shadow’s mohawk glistens in the lobby’s lights. “We caught what we were after.”

“Want rat?” Jarhead asks hefting a five pound beast.

“No thank you,” she says.

“Suit yourself,” the tinkerer says continuing to his workshop. He stops. “I seem to remember you had an Epad? Ipad?”

“A tablet, yes.”

“If you want, for a barter I can charge it up and keep it charged for a week.”

Shadow waits impatiently by the door into the loading dock.

“Are you going to have time to work on it now?” November asks.

“I think I can fit it in,” he says.

“I don’t know what’s on it because I can’t charge it up.” She opens a flap on her pack. “But I can give you this music box in trade.”

“Alright sure,” he says taking a wooden box from her hand. As he cracks it open, a porcelain figurine turns in time with a piece of classical music. "That’s pretty neat. You hand over the tablet and I’ll get it charged up. Is tomorrow night alright?”

November gently takes the box back and hands him the tablet. “Okay I’ll give you the music box then.”

“What are you intending to do with it?" she asks him as they enter the loading dock. "Why are you building up barter?”

Jarhead ignores her prying tone. “I don’t know. Listen to it? Maybe I can hook it up some speakers, make it worth a little bit more. Do you think that would work?”

Shadow steps between them. "He has a mission to do. He doesn’t have time to deal with your trivialities.”

“What do you mean?” November says. "He asked me.”

“The mission costs money,” Jarhead tells the warrior.

“Are you okay Shadow?” the dancer asks.

“He will take care of it,” Shadow tells her. "You don’t need to question him about it.”

“Are you okay Shadow?” she repeats.

The hide-clad man frowns and grips his spear. "It’s just that we’ve been spending so long here rather than on the mission.”

November slowly says, “my friend Mox says you’ve been looking at him oddly. I know you see things that I miss sometimes as far as dangers.”

“I don’t trust him,” the warrior admits, loosening his posture.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know these strangers, these Militia,” he says as Jarhead puts the rats and traps into their respective places. Memo gets to work on gutting the food. “I don’t know this tribe.”

“But he’s my friend, you know me,” she says softly.

“I suppose,” he sighs.

“What do you want me to do?" she says, stepping closer to him. "I’m not part your mission but I haven’t been trying to hurt it.”

“I need to help your mystic to complete his mission,” he says quickly, turning to Jarhead. “The safety of my tribe depends on it.”

“I see what’s the next step?”

“We must find the messenger,” he says.

Behind them Jarhead loses himself in repairing an engine.

“And where’s the messenger?” she asks, taking another step.

“Somewhere here I presume,” he says with a shrug.

November turns to Jarhead. “Jarhead? Who’s the Messenger Jarhead?”

Jarhead looks up from his work. “What? Oh the Messenger.”

“If we at least had some sort of lead on where the Messenger was,” Shadow says as he stomps over to Memo and slashes open a rat.

“I’m going to scry on the matter tonight," Jarhead tells Shadow. "If you to come around here at 8 o’clock tonight you can be a part of it.”

Shadow slows his cutting, turns and nods.

Violet wanders the halls of the Autodoc, searching for Joshua and Scarlet. After an hour, she finds the traitorous pair in a recently cleaned room in the East Wing.

“What is up?” Joshua asks.

“I have a mission for you,” she says.

“A mission?”

“How much do you know about A.T. Violet asks watching them carefully.

Joshua looks to Scarlet. The woman scratches her dreadlocks. “Well there’s been talk about that bunch of Militia guys that came in this morning. He’s not going to cause trouble is he?”

“He’s moving in on Taters she tells them. “He’s going to try to secure it.”

“I didn’t realize we were working with him,” Joshua says slowly.

Violet continues, “we need you to watch what they do.”

“So we need to keep an eye on them.” he says. “When do we need to be out there?”

“First thing tomorrow. We don’t know exactly when they are moving.”

Joshua and Scarlet glance at each other for a moment. “Alright first light then.”

“Thank you.”

A woman with an her automatic rifle accosts Violet on her way into the lobby. “So you are friends with Gator right?”

Violet recalls the tough looking figure. Relaxing her shoulders, the survivalist nods to Gator’s lieutenant.

“I get the sense that you and Gator have some sort of gig going," the woman continues. "My name’s Morgana by the way.”

“Nice to meet you,” Violet says.

“Yeah same here," she says her eyes flicking to the exits. “So I don’t know what your deal is but I figure you must have some sort of work you need doing. The boss is busy with something or another but I was wondering if maybe I could take care of something for you.” Morgana focuses her attention on Violet’s posture. “We’ve got a nice little Free Company that can take care of general violence needs, bodyguarding, security” Violet shifts. “Recon?”

“How about courier work?” Violet offers.

Morgana’s dark eyes flash. “Not our usual thing but I’m going to guess there’s a bit of danger involved.”

“Something like that.”

“Where to?” the mercenary asks.

“The ship,” Violet says.

“Ah." Morgana nods. "I think I can find somebody to handle that for you. For a price. Who is the message for?”

“A lady by the name of Kim,” Violet says evenly. “I’ll give the courier a description.”

“Fair enough,” she shrugs. Tapping her nose she says, "I’ll get Wire to do that for me. He’s a smart one. He’ll take care of it. So is this going to be a one time thing?”

“One time for now but with a possibility for more.”

Morgana grins. “Here’s my offer, one barter for the job there and back, message delivered and if you do need a second message we’ll cover that. Beyond that we’ll have to talk again.”

“If she sends anything back will that also be covered?” Violet asks.

“Yeah, unless it’s like a car or something.”


“Okay I’ll send Wire along." She pauses. "Though because of the danger involved I’ll have to take payment upfront.”

“Understandable.” Violet pulls out some barter.

“Well I’m a woman of my word, let’s shake on it, and get this job started.”

Violet takes Morgana’s hand. “Okay we’ve got ourselves a deal.”

A few minutes later a bushy haired man approaches Violet. The mercenary’s battered rifle clatters against the man’s banged up armor. Shots of gray pepper the man’s beard.

“I’m Wire,"he says extending a calloused hand. “So Morgana says you’ve got a message to send to the Big Ship.”

“Yes your contact is a lady by the name of Kim.” Violet quickly describes her and where she can be found. Then she hands him a sealed envelope.

“So in case things go south,” Wire says.

“It is very possible,” she comments.

The mercenary continues, “should I spend any time tossing this in the bay or something?”

“Just come back,” she tells him.

Wire stows the letter under his battered armor. “Okay I like that, coming back alive. See you soon. I hope.”

Violet nods. “No one else can see that message so if you have to destroy it, destroy it.”

A digital display on the wall ticks to 7:58. Jarhead points Shadow to a makeshift stool near the back of the van as he fiddles with the sphere, trying to zero in on the frequency of the Messenger. The savage sets his spear down and waits. With Jarhead’s workers sent away, the hiss of Jarhead’s screens compete with the sound of the vents for Shadow’s attention.

Jarhead scans the mental wavelengths, searching broadly for a signature that might be the Messenger. Then he gets a hit as he zeroes in a strange peak. The individual is nearby, inside the Autodoc!

The device vibrates in tune with this mental frequency. A horrible psychic whine echoes through the hospital. Jarhead feels it in his molars as a dull ache that grows as he moves away from the device. Shadow, ten feet away, grabs his ears.

“What is that noise?” the warrior cries.

A moment later Jarhead turns the dial to the far end of the spectrum, killing the reverberations.

Violet checks her guns and gear one last time as she readies for her recon mission. A high pitch whine hits her out of nowhere, like a bee flying past her ear. A moment later it vanishes.

November bites into a bright red apple as it hits. The feedback whine turns the sweet smell of fruit into stabbing pain. Mox grips his head as the sound tears into his mind.

November opens her mind to the sound. What is its source?

The sound floods into her mind, crashing against her thoughts before shattering something inside of her. She glances around in the ensuing silence. Mox continues to grab his head and she hears cries of pain throughout the hospital.

She also realizes she feels screaming and mumbling within the maelstrom. The voices seem close and anguished. November turns her head, seeking the source. A scream of I’m dying, dying echoes in her mind. Somewhere nearby two familiar voices babble to each other.

Then it all stops. The whine, the pain, the screams, and the voices.

November looks at the clock on the wall. The display read 8:04.

Jarhead, she thinks with a spark of irritation. But what was the other thing? It felt like something beyond the psychic maelstrom, that whatever Jarhead did resonated with me and let me see past it.

Then she realizes something more pressing. Those voices belonged to Joshua and Scarlet. Voices that sounded like someone drugged or brainwashed.

Mox rights his chair. “What, what was that?”

“I don’t know,” November says, steadying herself. “I think we’ve got to check out two people. You want to come with me?”

“Sure,” he says without hesitation.

November leads Mox to where Violet’s followers have gathered. The two turncoats are absent. Heading down a hallway, she reaches out again with her mind and calls Joshua.

Three minutes later, Joshua stumbles down the hallway towards them.

“Why am I here?” he says sleepily.

“Did you sense anything weird recently, that weird noise?” November asks.

“I felt something,” he says. His eyes slide off of hers.

“I’m sensing something really off about you,” she says. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” he says looking away. “I just felt really strange like I had to come here.”

She gestures for him to move along.“Yeah, yeah, we’re getting past that. What do you intend to do tomorrow for Violet?"

“We have a mission we’ve got to do,” he says glancing at Mox. “We have to go spy on some maneuver that A.T.’s going to do.” Joshua’s eyes glaze slightly and he mumbles, “but White will want us to tell him about that.”

November looks at Mox and jerks her head at the corner. Mox nods pulling a pistol before moving out of sight.

The dancer turns back to Joshua. “How could I get you come clean to Violet about what’s happening?”

“I can’t,” he mumbles, “can’t do that, no I can’t.”

November continues to press him, drawing close to him and lightly touching his arm.

“I can’t resist White,” Joshua says as she gently removes the magnifying glasses from his helmet. “White’s control, White’s powers. Rue Wakeman, he infected us with something.”

November stops for moment before pressing on.

As she removes his helmet she asks, “What are your current orders?”

Joshua stares at her entranced. “White wants us to infect the air supply. Scarlet and I were finding a way into the air system. Scarlet had just climbed in. Then I felt a need to come this way.”

November calls to Mox, “there’s an infected person in the air supply. Go get Gator and alert security. I got this.”

As Mox’s heavy footfalls fade down the hall, she turns to Joshua. “How can I defend against it?”

“You need to get away," he yawns. "Away from us. My head hurts.”

“Come with me,” she says, leading him deeper into the Autodoc, following signs to the isolation ward.

Gator shakes his head as the pain of the mental screech fades. A single fluorescent light illuminates his small fortified room.

The scarred man’s eyes dart to the door as clomping foot steps approach. He pulls his submachine gun as a heavy fist pounds on the single entrance.

Gator opens the door with the barrel of his gun. Through the slit he sees a huge black man in faded fatigues. The giant’s left hand grips a pistol absently as he says, “Gator, November sent me.”

“Yeah,” Gator replies relaxing his grip minutely.

“We got problems,” Mox says.


“We have one of those climbers about to pop in the air vents,” the soldier says, reaching into his pack.

Gator pulls the door open and steps into the hall. “Do we know where it is?”

“No,” he says pulling out his gas mask.

“Alright,” the mercenary replies, grabbing his own gas mask. “Just get to shutting vents.”

“Yeah I’m going to talk to Barnum now,” Mox says before running on down the hall.

Gator finds his gang’s bunkroom. “Everybody up.”

Morgana pops open a eye a second before bolting upright. “Wake up!” she shouts.

As the mercs get out of bed and ready themselves, Gator tells them, “we’ve got a climber in the vents.” He pulls on his gas mask. “Get hunting.”

“Okay split into teams of two,” Morgana instructs them.

Gator grabs Road. “You’re coming with me.”

The gang disperses through the hospital. In the lobby Violet looks up as Morgana and another merc moves through the area, popping open air vents.

“What’s going on?” Violet asks.

“We’ve got a guy about to pop in the air vents,” Morgana says through her gas mask. “We’ve got to find him.”

“Need some help?” she asks, grabbing her gear.

“Yeah, there’s lot of vents here.”

Violet pulls on her own mask and joins the search.

Violet pulls on her own mask. Her eyes flick to the security camera. We’d better find the climber before the computer does. I’d don’t want to be trapped here. She glances at the vents above. These all lead to that mass of tubing near Jarhead’s van, she thinks. Violet starts running for the loading dock.

Gator and Road case the second floor main hall room by room. Road looks in the left door. “Hey I found something.”

Gator pokes his head inside. The vent grate hangs open over a toppled chair. The warrior quickly rights it and in one fluid motion pulls himself into the duct. In the darkness a banging echoes down the metal tube.

He drops back down into the room. His eyes settle on a tank of oxygen.

“Tell everybody close all the vents," he says to Road. "It may get a little hot.”

Gator grabs the canister, hefting it and himself into the air duct. As he clambers after the threat, he hears Road shout, "Seal the vents!”

Joshua holds his bulging forehead. November tugs him the final few steps to the isolation room. “Get in there,” she says before pushing him.

She turns to the controls. Ignoring the intercom, she tries to trigger the seal manually.

The main door slides shut. But the inner hermetic door remains stubbornly open. Grumbling, she presses the intercom button.

Shadow stops pacing between a dusty palettes and a rusty jeep. He turns to Jarhead. “How can we find the Messenger out of the hundred people in this building?”

“I don’t know," the tinkerer says polishing another bit of chrome. "More time scrying will be needed.”

A loud banging pulls everyone’s attention to the two story mass of air ducts in the corner.

“What is that?” Shadow asks, bringing his twin pronged spear to bear.

“I don’t know,” Jarhead says. “You’ve got the weapon.”

”Do you think it is hostile?” the savage asks as he steps closer to the source of the noise.

Jarhead readies his pistol. “There shouldn’t be anything in there making that noise. Get it out of there.”

Violet bursts inside as Shadow twists something on the handle of his spear. The prongs give off a strange hum.

In the ducts, Gator spies someone crawling in the darkness ahead.

“Hold up," Violet warns. "There’s a climber in there.”

Shadow steps back.

“A climber? Why?” Jarhead asks.

“Someone’s trying to sabotage the air system,” Violet explains, stepping toward the ductworks herself.

“Shit, shit, double shit,” Jarhead says backing up to van. He reaches behind him for his handmade gas mask.

The figure tries to scramble away. Gator pulls his muscular form through the tight duct. He crashes into a woman, pinning her to metal floor before he recognizes the long red dreadlocks.

Scarlet’s glazed eyes look off the left as she continues to thrash. Her forehead bulges in rhythm to her pained breathing.

Gator pulls a knife and slides it swiftly between her ribs. As he bisects her heart, she twitches a final time. Her eyes go still.

Then a pale fibrous stalk cracks through her forehead, spraying spores everywhere.

The noise gets louder in the ductwork. As a larger angrier source collides with the first. Violet shouts, “get as far away from the duct as possible.” She turns to the lowest vent. “Who is in there?”

“Get back!” Gator growls. Then he pulls the oxygen canister over his head and fires his gun straight into it. Hell envelopes him.

The blast wave continues down the ducts carrying thousands of spores ahead of the blaze. Throughout the hospital, vent panels are blown open. In the loading dock, Violet steps back just as the grate smacks into her, sending her flying.

November speaks into the metal panel, “deadly contagion in containment room A3, please seal tight.”

With mechanical speed, the inner doors slide shut. A moment later a flash of light fills the hall and isolation chamber.

A female voice assembled from strips of tape emerges from the intercom. ”Analyzing contagion. Contagion identified. Status. Advanced. Emergency measures. Implemented. Please stand back.”

November quickly steps back as jets of liquid spray into the isolation room. Ice crystals spread up the walls as the contents are cryogenically frozen.

“Activating. Internal Scanners,” the computer announces. “Scanning. For. Further. Containment.”

November looks to the 3D floor plan on the display.

Then a rumble echoes through the hospital. Above the sealed vents shake.

“Ventilation System. Compromised,” the hospital PA system says as November dashes down the hall. “Contagion. Detected. Contagion. Detected.”

Jarhead looks from the loudspeaker to his workshop. Allison and Waters crouch by the van with Memo glancing out from behind them.

“Okay, time to go,” the tinkerer says, gesturing them inside the van. “Get what you can and get in. No need to be nice, we’ll fix it up later.”

The loud speaker continues, “Emergency Protocols. Implemented. Locking down. Locking down. Please stay clear of the doors. Locking down. Locking down.”

Allison helps her brother into the van with the goggles and taser before pulling Memo inside as well. jarhead looks over the machining tools one last time before hopping in with Shadow.

Violet picks herself up the floor. Wobbling she looks on as the van pulls away from the other vehicles. Her gaze focuses on Boo’s yellow SUV. A moment later she jumps into the driver’s seat and turns the key.

A crash comes from the back of the room as Gator topples out of the air duct. Shielding his eyes with a blackened hand, he spies a rusty van and jeep nearby. Jarhead’s van slips out the darkened exit as the door begins to descend. Then the SUV roars to life.

Something heavy slams onto the back of Boo’s vehicle as Violet pulls forward. Glancing at the rear view mirror she spies a horribly burned man clinging to the back.

With no time to think, she guns the engine and scrapes out of the Autodoc before the main door falls shut.

As the alarms go off, November scrambles through the halls, sliding between panicking nurses and patients. A knot of people crash through the door to the lobby as she approaches, leaving a gap. As she runs over, she spots Mox picking himself up from a tumble and Boo crawling along feebly.

Straining with all of her might, the lithe woman pulls Mox’s brutish form through the plexiglass doors before they slam shut.

Boo and the others left behind press up against the glass, banging futilely.

A crash comes from the left as someone tosses a chair through the more fragile lobby glass. November and Mox head that way.

A crowd of people mill around outside the Autodoc while inside red lights flash. The two vehicles that escaped park near the edge of the crowd.

November looks for Rue, White’s emissary and architecture of the disaster. Assured he isn’t present, she wanders over to her companions.

“I know who did this,” she tells the battered and burned group.

“Who,” growls a charred Gator.

“Rue Wakeman,” she intones. Everyone glances her way. “The man with the top hat that works for White.”

“That man over there?” Jarhead says pointing behind her.

November turns. The dark skinned man slowly walks toward her out of the darkness, his white face paint gleaming in the flashing red lights.

The dancer approaches him, slowly moving off to the right so they come face to face with his back to the others.

“You sacrificed two people to kill hundreds,” she says scowling at him.

Gator’s good eye seizes on Rue’s back and he silently slides out a knife. As he moves forward, Jarhead says, “hold on. Wait a minute.”

Rue turns as Gator stabs, sliding out of the way just as Gator commits to his attack. The knife still makes a gash in his side sparking off metal links under his ragged suit. Ignoring the pain, Rue continues his turn, gripping Gator’s knife hand and toppling the big man to the ground. The mercenary looks up to his own knife to his throat.

“I only serve the gods,” he answers November. He turns toward Jarhead. “As do you.”

Two prongs fly from Jarhead’s taser, shocking the voodoo priest. Meanwhile November slices low from behind him, tearing out his tendons. As Rue wretches back in pain and disbelief, he swings wildly. Gator’s knife glances off her shoulder. She hisses in pain as he collapses into a heap.

The others form a small circle around the critically wounded man.

Gator grunts as picks himself off the ground. “We need to end him.”

“Probably,” November says, pulling out some scarves.

“I think Gator you are thinking about this a little too immediate,” Jarhead says, retrieving the taser prongs. “Make him last.”

“We should burn him,” Shadow says, joining them.

November begins to bind her wound. “Probably.”

Gator retrieves his knife. “Yes.”

“This man has a devil in him,” the savage adds.

“I think we should give him to the hospital,” Jarhead comments.

November looks to the flashing red lights coming from the lobby. “I don’t think we’ll be getting in there right now. Also I don’t want him to wake up.”

“We should get as much info as possible out of him before we kill him,” Jarhead says, looking at the alien green of his half lidded eyes.

Violet looks down on the bleeding man. She picks out the scratches under his white face paint, the pure green eyes, and tattered suit. His top hat rocks back and forth a few feet away. This man is infested. To be still alive, his body and the fungus must be working together somehow.

His voice emerges unbidden in her mind. What would you want me to do?

If I had my druthers, she responds. You would go far far away and never hurt anyone ever again.

Sadly that is not my fate, he replies.

I guess in that we have no choice, she concludes.

“We should move him farther away,” Violet tells the others.

“Can I take tissues samples or something?” Jarhead pleads.

“No,” Gator and November tell him.

As Gator and Shadow grab hold of him, Jarhead argues, “You guys don’t want to know why he’s still alive?”

“I don’t care,” Gator says, hefting him down the street.

“Nah,” November says. “He’s a voodoo priest.”

Shadow speaks through a thick scarf. “He has a devil inside him, he must be burned.”

“All of him,” Gator adds.

As they leave the crowd, Violet considers the idea. “Take a sample. We might encounter someone else like this.”

“Violet no,” November says. “We shouldn’t take samples because any chance of it getting loose is too dangerous for what we’d gain. If there is somebody like him, we’ll deal with it, just like we dealt with this guy.”

“There is no cure,” Gator adds.

“You made a rational case,” she says.

A couple blocks away they find a shell of building. The pile fallen branches on top of him. Shadow starts a fire. Rue Wakeman’s thin body burns like kindling.

The group returns to the crowd outside of the hospital. Morgana picks out Gator’s burned features and walks over.

“Ouch boss,” she says taking in his fresh wounds. “Well ten of us managed to get out in the end, not counting Wire. I sent him on a little job earlier.”

Gator nods, his eyes picking out Road among the escapees.

Violet looks for someone in charge of the crowd. She spots A.T. and his men dusting themselves off from their explosive escape from the West Wing. She doesn’t see Barnum.

Then she spots Millions amid a knot of concerned nurses. She pushes through them to the plastic featured person.

“Millions, where is Barnum? How long can we expect the lockdown to last?” she asks.

The platinum blonde looks at the survivalist. “He’s still inside. I don’t know how long it will be in lockdown. The protocols are supposed to be that it will remain in lockdown until the infection is cured.”

Jarhead squirms next to them. “How is it cured?”

“They were just recently exposed so the treatment should be easy to do. There are a lot of people inside exposed but we would be able to treat each of them in a few days. So hopefully a few days.”

“How?” he presses.

“They have to take a regime of drugs and be put in isolation.”

November comes up behind them. “They’ve been able to cure phase one for about five years now.”

“Exactly,” Millions says. “And they should be at worse at phase one.”

“I think we should make camp nearby,” Violet opinions.

November looks around and spots Pandora leading the other cultists in a song of thanks. The elder priest, Heron, reclines a short distance away.

The dancer quickly walks up to them. “Are you returning the Music Bowl now?” she interrupts.

“Yes,” Pandora says.

“Thank you. We may accompany you.”

“You are welcome,” she replies, smiling.

November returns to the others. “Pandora and the others are returning to the Music Bowl. I think we should join them. We don’t want to be camping out in the Florida swamps or the Miami ruins. The Music Bowl is pretty nice. They appreciate the finer things.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” murmur several nurses.

“And we are all pretty banged up,” November continues, “so I don’t think we are ready to deal with White right now.”

Everyone nods.

”Let’s come back in a few days,” Violet says.

November shrugs. “Sure I guess we can talk about that.”

Garber taps Violet on the shoulder. Violet hands him the keys to the SUV. “Here, I rescued your father’s vehicle.”

“We’ve got to him out,” the youth pleads.

November puts a hand on his shoulder. “He’s being treated in there, he should be fine and Violet says she is going to come back in a couple days. The best thing to do is to make sure you stay safe.” She watches his lip quiver. “Look there is window there, you could write a little note to him, hold up and let him know you are going to be okay.”

”He wouldn’t want you to get hurt,” Violet says.

Violet helps him write a message and paste it on the inner door of the lobby. On the way back, they run into the other escapees: Lily, Starbuck and AOL.


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