Disintermediation

Morning Story August 28 -September 1  2017

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“You really think it’s dead?”

“Look around, Gunman. That system that got us here is grotesquely deceased and, yes; gone. Along with all the lights.”

Gert, the new Guild Boss at the Foodie Swapshop, indexed his trigger finger, lowered his pocket pistol, a well-preserved .32 caliber Colt 1903, then checked briefly to make sure no body parts were in the line of fire. Not going to do that screw-up again. “That’s what’s stinking the place up: a monstrously bloated and decidedly dead capitalism system.”

“That was that fat bastard with the bad haircut did that.”

“Don’t shoot the messenger again.” Gert laughed; look who he was talking to here. It was Gert’s opinion that the North Korean leader was a tool of the global state controllers; he did as he was forced to do and took the blame.

The sun was peeking its way over the brown and miserable hills off to the east of his home base as Gert engaged in shooting drills. Gunman insisted on dawn swap-talks and range practice. He had a thriving barter business trading homemade reloads of all calibers and shooting lessons. Skills were life these days.

“If only I coulda…” The man called Gunman based his op from an old salt mine nearby in this quiet little mountain glen about eight miles north of what was once called Ojai. From south of Casitas Springs through Mira Monte up to Ojala, the area had been overrun in the first week after E-day; a smoking ruin left behind. But with only one road in and out of this area, isolation eventually became an ally.

Another lucky break occurred because most ‘greensuits’ – folks not from around here – thought the entire area was a hot zone from a nuke plant meltdown. Thanks to an underground fuel depot fire that burned for months, it kept the greensuits from getting too close, so that little fable made for a relatively decent quality of life after E-Day. At least for a while. The enemy had waited after the blackout; waited for us to kill ourselves off before invading. They finally got tired of waiting.

“I know you’re the finest one-shot, one-soul removal professional in these parts, Gunman. I was at the battle of Wheeler Springs.”

“Yes, you were, sir. Never seen hand-to-hand done in such an enjoyable manner.”

“Just a few Judo moves.” Gert brought the Colt up slowly, expelling his breath, then closing his mouth and drawing another one through his nostrils. Measured; calm.

“No, sir. Respectfully, Mr. Gert,” Gunman: one Samuel Travis Goodfriend in a previous life before E-Day changed everybody’s address. “Jackie Chan would have shed a tear.”

“Now I know you’re bullshitting me.” Gert didn’t move at all; just stayed steady, eyed the iron site at the end of the gun, shifted his focus downrange briefly, then back to the Gunman’s ‘wide eye’ sighting technique.

“I mean it. It’s the reason I agreed to swap with you. I pick my clients carefully. No offense, Mr. Gert.”

“Be at peace, Sam. You’re a gold member. You got nothing to prove.”

“That’s a comfort.”

Gert gently squeezed and the Colt spoke with a small, but solid report. Thirty feet downrange, a tin can jumped up and spun a turn before clattering to the ground.

“Good kill, son.” As usual, Gunman wondered how any of those cans could possibly have enough material for another bullet to affect it; those sad targets were more hole than can.

“Appreciate it. It’s also a comfort to possess this skill; your skill. Rather have it and not need it…”

“You’ll need it; eventually.”

“I’ll say it again; you’re welcome in our guild any time, Sam. You’ll have my vouch and sponsor.” Gert squeezed off another shot; this one smacking into a round and heavily dented hubcap, sending it spinning on its swivel fishing hook.

“Thanks, kindly, Mr. Gert. My gold status was a long climb and I like the freedom. And I’m old; you fellers don’t want an old foggity around gummin’ up your cylinders.”

“Your honesty is refreshing, Gunman.” One more shot – this one split a weathered old No.2 pencil leaving just the eraser and a finger’s width of stump – and the magazine was empty.

“Well done! I’m gonna miss you as a student, sir.”

“What do you mean? I need…”

“No, son. There’s nothing more I can impart. Not with this caliber. Just practice as much as you can. In a close quarters gunfight, you’ll still be standing when the mags run dry. You’ve got a calm hand, steady eye and controlled lung.”

“Thank you, Gunman. I’ll probably owe you my life someday.”

“Well, you’re a fair trader and a good student. Your reload trades are half-chip from now on, Mr. Gert. A graduation present.”

“Oh, now; that’s too generous. Bullets are…”

“I insist.”

And that was final. Gunman was an easy-going gentleman, gray hair in a long pony-tail embedded in a pale skull that rarely saw full sunlight; his black leather and heavily sweat-stained cowboy hat was a well-recognized sight in the protected community called Wheeler Springs. He was also as stubborn as a honey badger.

Wheeler Springs was one of an uncountable number of pockets of survivor-communities that coalesced after the juice dried up; and EMPs have a way of making it close to permanent. So, the residents up and down Maricopa Highway – US33 – picked up the remains of their homes and built a series of barter shops and exchanges. Life was rocky and tenuous, but compared to the dangerous coast highway to the south, it was heaven.

“Very well. Thank you.” Gert took a moment to savor his accomplishment; he set the pistol down in his gun bag on the pine shooter’s bench to his left where a soft velvet cloth imbued with Hoppes No.9 within protected his treasure. He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants, then took a deep breath.

“I believe it’s time for a drink.”

“That’s what my watch shows.” Gunman laughed; low, slow and hearty. “Pack up, then we drink up.”

Gert was already packing his stuff away; an unopened bottle of Dewar’s White Label in sight nearby. The sun was up, the bar was open.

“One good shot deserves another.” Gert punctuated this old gunslinger’s sayin’ with a brisk, slashing motion of the zipper on his gun bag. “Time for breakfast.”

Gunman just chuckled.

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“Let’s get this show on the road, gentle guilders.” Gert, as the recently-appointed Guild Boss of the Fresh Fooders Fair Swapstop, was required to hold Audit Meetings, and he detested it. This small group of locals who pooled their meager products in a concerted effort to thrive in a time of scarcity met in his old converted barn once a week. “Got to count my gold and smoke my stogies.”

Polite laughs from the other five men and two women gathered on this warm spring afternoon. “Lemme know if you, uh, need some help there,” Sammi-Tee said from her chair across the broad, oval table. Samantha Tailor, great-granddaughter of the founder of this tucked-away little corner in the mountains north of the Pacific Coast. “Counting gold, you can count on me.”

“Literally,” Jayman countered. “One, two.” And he thrust his chest out, shook it briefly. His brother barked up a laugh. “Literally.” Payman echoed his sibling nearly without fail. They were a brother-team of Traffickers; the guild’s bookkeeper and trends specialist.

“Count you two out,” Sammi shot back as she stood briefly, leaning over the table and improving their view of her cleavage. “See ya later, boys. In your dreams.” She sat back in her chair, winked and grinned at Payman. He wanted her bad; and that was good. It made the torture so much sweeter.

“Business meeting, people,” Gert said from his new chair at the head of the table. “I wasn’t kidding about the cigar.” He held up a metal tube with a screw-on cap; it had some Spanish letters on it.

“Where’d you get a cigar? Only deep state ghoulies get those pretty prizes.” Billi the Fixer had her feet up on the table; chair reclined to its snapping point, and her arms crossed.

“Perk of the work, Billi.” Bossman Gert winked at her. Why did every woman Gert know have a masculine name?

“Guild Boss; yeah.” Middleman was the embodiment of succinct. It wasn’t a mystery why almost everyone liked this middle-aged Russian refugee with the big brown eyes and craggy face: he was a true man of few words. And a great listener.

“That says it all, Boss.” Carman had a small stack of papers on the desk in front of him and, resting on top, a large steel ring holding hostage an uncountable number of keys. “Driver’s seat for Mr. Gert.” As the Guild’s Dealer, Carman was responsible for vehicle procurement. It was getting more and more difficult to find a useable ride these days; his gig might be obso soon.

“Thanks. Okay. We’re missing one. As usual.” Gert’s partner in crime; quite literally. The guild’s Facilitator, the guy with the out-of-town contacts, the fresh blood for this closed-loop community. “We’ve got the guild’s audit and inventory; a copy for everyone. Let’s skip the readout. Carman, would you hand those out?”

“Sure, Bossman” Gert hoped he had some other skills in his repertoire; Carman was a loyal worker, but that wasn’t enough these days.

“Second; yeah.” Middleman with his input; that was his job, really. Every guild had one, a middleman that acts as ombudsman at times; an arbiter of internal conflicts at others.

“Move along, please,” Middleman said with a nod.  And at meetings, the Middleman kept things running when they could so easily collapse into a duel or some damned thing.  Another reason he was well-liked.

“Case? You’ve been quiet.” Gert liked this kid; he always seemed a bit slow in his speech and movement; but Gert knew better. “Anything on the Foodie front?”

The Fooders Fair Swapstop guild was primarily a food barter outlet; Gert had made a deal with enough of the local farmers and gardeners in this wounded mountain backwoods to boast the advantage of ‘freshness’ and ‘availability.’ It came at a cost, though. “Our foodie sources are happy?”

“I reckon.” Case Cooler looked fairly uncomfortable there in his ‘city clothes’ and ‘hardsoles;’ that’s what he called footwear that wasn’t a pair of busted-in Doc Martins. Another efficient communicator; Sammi called him The Dentist because getting a quick answer from him was like pulling teeth.

“You let me know if that changes,” Gert said and snapped his fingers impulsively. He’d read somewhere that this audio distraction confirms a leader’s status; he’d just commanded the entire room’s attention without notice. Leadership.

Case jumped slightly at the snap, Gert observed. Nevertheless, the tall kid who would’ve normally been dressed in torn blue jeans and one of those rodeo shirts with the flower embroidery on the shoulders just took a deep breath and nodded, “Sure will.”

“Outstanding. Now if only our Facilitator were here, we could get a read on the out-of-town action.” Gert mimed total confusion with an exaggerated shrug. Payman laughed. “Where is he?”

“Holding up a bank, if there were any.” Sammi said it as though she was reading it from an encyclopedia.

“Gospel, sister.” Billi said, sliding her feet off the table, letting them smack into the wooden floor of the barn. Dust and ancient straw debris took flight.

“I’m not your sister,” Sammi said; a tone like a rubber-band snap to a nipple. “But I’ll do you anyway.” That always made Billi break up; a horsey kinda laugh with a few snorts and a high-pitched, nearly silent squeal.

The meeting was sliding away quickly.

“Alright, that’s enough.” Bossman Gert asserting his skills; his voice overrode the others and the laughing dissolved into a single giggle; Payman.

“You’ve got outhouse duty, Payman. You know the rules.”

“Aw, shit!” That started everyone up again, and Gert knew it was over-and-out.

“Meeting is done. Get back to work!” Gert smacked the table with his palm, and as if they were sitting in a set of spring-loaded chairs, the present company stood up, gathered their things and headed for the side door. “Case, Middleman. Please hang back a minute.”

The two men addressed glanced at each other like maybe their secret had been leaked and the Bossman knew it; sat down again.

“Got a walk-n-talk with the Cooper group,” Case said and looked up through a large, ragged hole in the barn’s aging roof. It was sunny at the moment, but Case knew that wouldn’t last. Thunder coming, his bones told him. “Wanna tie it up before the rain. And I got that other…meeting.”

“Won’t hang the clock,” Gert said without looking up.

“What rain?” Middleman asked. His bones didn’t speak to him.

“Storm later,” Cooler said, still looking up through the hole.

Gert had just finished looking through his notes; the battered yellow legal pad with the dozen or so paper clips had seen better days. Who hadn’t? Gert took his seat again.

“Bad enough for a road alert tonight, Case?”

“Nope. Maybe tomorrow night.”

“Gonna last that long?” Middleman didn’t mind the rain, but he couldn’t swim and nothing was more terrifying than drowning to him. Twice already from his escape to America his ship had gone under, and twice he barely survived. High in the mountains seemed like a safe place from that ‘very bad ending.’

“Longer, probably.”

“What about the dam down south? Is that gonna be a problem again?”

“Likely. She can only hold so much.”

“Great. Send a gohbee down to Miratown; tell the Mayor the weather’s changing. He’ll need some eyes on that dam.” Middleman nodded every other word or so and responded as usual, “Done.”

“Okay. Now, Case.” The young man sat there looking like the soul of discomfort; his hastily-assembled suit, tie, and city-clothes would’ve look better on an octopus probably.

“Don’t be nervous, Case. Just tell the committee why you deserve a citizenship in The Springs. They know your story already. They’re just satisfying their gut instinct.”

“That’s what worries me.” Case Cooler was a farm boy from Washington state, unintentionally transplanted here when he escaped from an enemy transport hauling some prisoners down the coast to the debarkation barge bound for the Santa Cruz Island Internment Camp.

“You’ll be fine.” Gert graced the former Roadloader-turned-Foodie Barterer with a confident smile; a slow, definitive head-nod. “You’ll be eligible to be an official guilder, too. That means something.” A Roadloader was a traveling barterer; a dangerous, dirty profession. A guild member had food to eat, water to drink, and a safe few hours to sleep each night. And more; but there was a cost.

“I know.” Case found himself nodding along with Gert; another Leadership trick to instill loyalty into a shaky self-confidence.

“Alright. Get out of here and go improve your station, Mr. Case Cooler…” Gert paused and chuckled. “There’s a party later,” Gert’s face took on a serious, but tongue-in-cheek shadow. “…if you pass.”

“I’ll pass,” Case replied, and he injected an assertive nuance that even surprised Gert. Middleman cracked a smile; clearly impressed.

“See ya later.” Gert said it with that Bossman dismissal tone. Case stood up and left the room without another word. His face was set; Middleman caught a look at the boy’s face; his jaw was working, grinding.

“Well done,” Middleman commented; his usual pithy observation.

“He’s gonna do fine.” Gert glanced at his second-in-command; they’d only been working together for a handful of months, but Gert had come to depend on this odd bear of a man. “How’re you doing, Middleman. You okay?”

“Just fine.” Middleman appeared to hesitate, then he bit his lower lip. A dead giveaway ‘tell’ Gert had noticed the first time they met. “Fine.”

“Not fine, pal. No. It’s not. We’ve got a sparking wire in the powder room, don’t we?” Gert was fond of using a goofy metaphor when talking with Middleman; he always understood even though his command of English was awful, but also hilarious.

“Yes. And the camel is back with a broken straw.” Middleman with a perfect deadpan; he didn’t know he had butchered the phrase.

Gert did and it was more than he could take.  Truckloads of tension and stress these last few weeks had been building; thank God for Dewars, his Colt and Gunman. And this fellow.

Middleman, a most courteous individual to a fault – something learned the hard way from the uncompromising Communists in his homeland – waited for Gert to finish laughing. In truth, it was music to hear his captain laugh.

“Forgive me, Anatoly. I’m not laughing at you…” and off he went again, hearing in his mind’s ear his friend’s fractured take. Gert was the only human on the planet allowed to utter Middleman’s real name. It was a great honor, apparently.

“I know. My English is a comedy.” And he laughed a short burst. Deep and not unlike a typical Santa Claus.

“It’s a precious skill, Middleman. We’re lucky to have you…” Gert stopped short as one of the big double barn doors was flung open; ending its short flight by banging into a shoring post wedged behind it. Dust, straw and ancient sawdust from the guts of a past hoard of termites filtered lightly down from one end of the old structure to the other. A miracle it didn’t fall in on itself.

“Sonuvabitch!” Gert finished his sentence in a typical way whenever the Facilitator was around, it seemed. The man with the heavy hand entered, his boots thumping on the worn wooden floor, coaxing more debris from the ceiling. The guild’s Facilitator, his dark Fedora plopped with a tilt on his somewhat oversized head, slapped his hands together; rubbed them briefly. Bossman Gert jumped up from his chair, sending it backwards, tipping over onto its back.

“Oh, what a shame; I missed the meeting!” Philip Grossman, the Facilitator with the coastal contacts and tunnels around the enemy; the only man in this backwoods-burg with the clout to keep everybody supplied with their needful things. “I did try to be on time, you know.”

“Well, you’re in luck, Phil. Meeting went fine, we didn’t need you.”

“Well, you need me whether you want it or not.” And that about summed up Phil’s approach to this life; afterlife is what Phil called it. Half the time, he felt as though he and everybody else were already dead; fleshy spirits waiting to ‘get it’ and fade away to some discount Valhalla.

“Bloody hell,” Middleman said, somewhat less sub-audibly than he apparently intended. Grossman heard it plain enough and extended his stride two extra steps to park right over him. Anatoly had a British friend on his first ship out of Sevastopol that used to say this exquisite motto incessantly.

“Want to see some bloody hell, old man?” Grossman grabbed the Russian by the scruff of his neck and squeezed. Middleman gagged; his eyes bulged alarmingly.

“Hey! Phil, goddamn it. Hey!” Gert brought his left arm up, swiveled at the elbow and back-fisted his partner, connecting on the man’s stubbled chin. It wasn’t a blood-punch, but it was enough to release Middleman. And that did it; Grossman was enraged.

Phil reached out now, pushing off his back foot and propelling his two-hundred-twenty-pound frame forward into Gert’s body. The pair fell against the table, screeching it two feet across the floor as they pulled and grunted for an advantage.

This wasn’t the first time they’d fought and Gert had anticipated this tangle anyway. “Calm down…oof…” Phil had grabbed him around the waist, pushing the air out of Gert’s lungs.

By now, they were locked in a suffocating grapple; until Gert leaned to his left away from Phil’s body, grabbed Phil’s coat collar with his left hand while at the same time reaching under the bigger man’s crotch. Renewing his breath through his nose briefly, Gert released it with an audible ‘assault cry.’ A moment later, Gert pushed off the floor, spun his body, letting gravity and the other man’s momentum do what nature intended. Fly, then fall.

Middleman was rubbing his neck, waiting for the inevitable. They’d set the Facilitator up for a beating before; it was the only way to affect any real retribution according to the Guild rules. Grossman hadn’t caught on; his hair-trigger temper was an exploitable flaw.

You…!” Phil started to say something; then he hit the barn floor with a disturbing, dense-sounding impact. The remainder of Grossman’s breathe hissed out in a rush.

The whole barn shook again and something on the south wall fell away with a weird-sounding whoosh; like a curtain unveiling a statue. In this instant of distraction, Gert easily rolled away and sprang back to his feet. Early forties and still spry; that and a canny knack for stealing had kept Gert Kiddings, now Gert Bossman, alive and kicking.

“Gonna take you apart, Mister Bossman,” Phil said from the floor, his grimace more than enough payback for the guild’s Middleman. Worth a sore neck to see this asshole get a little of his own rough-and-scuff.

“Guild rules, Phil. You attacked first, it’s my duty to protect…”

“Yeah, yeah. Mr. Save-The-Day! You and you’re fucking guild…”

Gert stepped over and offered his hand. “Come on, Phil. Friends again. We got a party to go to later. Drinkin’ is better than fightin’. Right?”

“I guess.” Phil grunted, then laughed, “Yeah. Drinkin’ is good, goddamn it.” He raised his hand, and Gert grabbed it, hauled the old bastard up. Phil sucked in a breath and grinned at Middleman, then up at Gert.

“You and that damn Jujitsu,” Phil said as a way of an apology. He began patting the dust and crap off his clothes; a fairly nice dark suit, vest and gold-themed tie. He was a Gold community member, and he rarely let anyone else forget it.

“Judo. It’s different.” Gert dusted his pants, spit a bit of dust out.

“Whatever. Listen, Bossman, we gotta talk. Something is ass-end in the cake, and we’re in for a slice of shit, no lie.” Phil had a way of sounding like a 1930’s Hollywood gangster at times.

“The enemy comin’ this way?” Middleman asked, his sixth sense for ‘bad and sad’ was usually, unfortunately, accurate.

“Not right away; but, yeah. They’re looking at the dam again. My spy eyes are about eight out of ten on this one.”

“Shit. Didn’t we just fix this problem?” Gert knew it was too good to be true, these bastards…

“That was last year. They’re more dug-in now. They’ll own the coast from Ventura to the Bay soon.”

“Alright. My office in an hour,” Gert said in that dismissive tone. “And Phil, no bullshit at Case’s grad party tonight, hear me?”

Grossman grunted, his back was beginning to throb. “Yeah; okay. I won’t screw with the kid too bad.” Hell, he sorta liked the kid; didn’t talk much, that was always a plus. Couldn’t say the same for this Russian defector sonuvabitch.

“I heard there’s new bottle of Jack in the lockup,” Gert said to Middleman. “Any chance we can snag it for the party?”

“Of course, I’ll…”

“Stay put, Vlad. I’ll get it. See you chumps in an hour.” The town’s only Facilitator bent down, picked up his stained Fedora, and briskly walked out the way he’d entered, smartly popping the hat on his head just as he passed the door frame.

“You okay?” Gert asked his friend.

“Yes. Lenin he’s not.”

And Gert laughed again. Couldn’t help it; this old man was a treasure.

As they turned to exit the barn, both men looked over at the south wall where a bit earlier something had been disturbed and had aborted its moorings, revealing a secret Gert and Anatoly had never seen before. And they’d been using this building for months; never a clue it was here.

“What does it say, Bossman?” Middleman’s command of written English was limited to some basic paperwork symbols and traffic signs. The words painted here looked like a poem or something. It might as well have been ancient Sumerian to Middleman.

“Some ageless wisdom. And our curse, I’m afraid.”

Middleman stared at the white spray-painted letters on the splinted barn wall and wondered again at the absurdity of life after E-Day.

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“It really has nothing to do with fleas,” Gert explained again. Middleman was nearly obsessed with the eight lines of English words that had introduced itself in the barn a few hours ago. Phil was late, Gert was annoyed, and Middleman knew what to do to distract his Boss. Engaging in a discussion about those cryptic sentences seemed ideal.

“Clearly, size of the fleas is important.” Middleman’s statement of fact couldn’t be disputed; but it wasn’t the point.

“Right. But it’s more about chain of command than fleas,” Gert was beginning to suspect that his friend was being obtuse intentionally. “You get that, right?”

“Of course. All the biting. This is a Communist notion. The system works because of the biting.”

“Yeah; that’s more right than not. But, I think it’s…”

“When to stop the biting. That is always where we fail.” Middleman cut Gert off without noticing; very unlike him.

“We have teeth, after all…” Gert tried again, but got shortstopped. Gert cracked a smile; he’d never seen this usually-subdued man so animated.

“Indeed! I have seen this biting myself; my own eyes.” Middleman seemed to fade in the darkening afternoon as storm clouds rolled in and sneered at the land below. Anatoly the survivor surfaced then, for a moment. His voice, his body language insisted, ‘I am unbreakable.’

“I have seen the blood, my captain. The fleas bite hard. My family…”

Gert’s throat went suddenly arid; he felt his voice rather than heard it. “I can’t imagine.”

“And now this invasion. My new homeland, and here they are again!” Anatoly the rebel, the insurgent now, the old soldier who knew the true value of freedom. If only he – we – could reclaim it; secure it for keeps.

“We’re not sure exactly who they are.” Gert had heard an assortment of rumors: Spetsnaz, Chinese Infiltration Squads, Pakistani Infantry, Mexican cartels and a half-dozen different factions from the Middle East. All of them. None of it substantiated. “Lucky you’re on our side, Middleman.”

Unlucky for them.” Faint thunders from the west. Looks like Case was right, Gert thought, wonder how the kid is doing.  And talk about a useful skill; weather prediction.

“You’ve got the most important skill of the lot for these times.” One of Gert’s skills was turning out to be Leadership; he wouldn’t say it openly, but he was surprised at his own ability.

“What’s that?”

“The will to fight and survive.” Another rippling thunder rolled way out down the canyon to the beach and the sea.

“Doesn’t everyone?” Anatoly the street fighter, the rebel wouldn’t have had that mental burden. No time for that; someone is shooting at you.

“Afraid not. E-Day punched everyone in the gut. No electricity, not likely to restore it for another decade, even if we weren’t being invaded by God knows who.”

“He knows who, alright.” Middleman intoned. First time Gert had heard any mention of a deity.

“Guess so. But not everyone got their breath back. You’d be surprised how many gave up; just said, ‘Screw it.’ And now, your skills are what gets you to tomorrow.”

“No wonder they quit. Many have skills that are; what’s the word? Bupkiss?”

“That’s one way to say it. Useless is another.”

“And so they beg or sell themselves.”

Whatever to survive. That’s why this poem is wisdom. And a curse.”

“We are all fleas.” Middleman the philosopher stated it for the record. Gert nodded and marveled at the simplicity of this gifted and sifted insight.  He had nothing to add.

”Even the monsters that did this to us…are fleas, as well.” Gert wished he had added that, because that was the entire point.

“You, my friend, have a mighty fine seat waiting for you in Heaven, or wherever we end up. They will have need of your skills up there.”

That must’ve struck the old Russian as possible, because he nodded with relish, raised his right hand and pointed skyward. “Yes! That is it. That is my purpose. Why else should I have this pain; this loss? Someone must take it up when they leave. Show them what is what.” He looked at Gert sternly; daring him to find a reason why it can’t possibly be true.

“Don’t leave just yet.” Gert said it sincerely; he was touched by this man’s willingness to attempt such a feat. “We still need you here.”

“Of course.” Middleman; completely serious. Gert looked into those weathered brown eyes, wondered what else they’d seen that he would never discuss; couldn’t possibly. “And there’s a party later,” Middleman added.

It was nearly impossible for Gert to determine just exactly who was zooming who here; the old Russian’s delivery was either perfect prank or incredibly innocent. Either way, Gert belched out a laugh and slapped his second on the shoulder. Then he stood up.

“We’ve waited long enough for that criminal. Let’s have a drink.” Bossman didn’t wait for a response; this was his office. He stepped to the wooden shelf near the east window that held a few bottles for socials or toasting.

“I think I can recite the poem, Bossman. Would you hear if I said it?”

“I’m sure I would. Please do.” Gert perused the small liquor bottle collection. Two bourbons, a gin and a vodka. He’d never heard of the brands.

Middleman cleared his throat, rotated his head on his neck like he was warming up for the Olympics or something. Gert could see his reflection in the window pane. Now Middleman was adjusting the sleeves of his leather jacket. Picking some lint from his lapels.

The Bossman selected a bourbon bottle – Old Forester – and turned around. “Please proceed.” Now he got it; Middleman was waiting for his introduction.

“Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so, ad infinitum.” He paused and looked up, saw Gert grinning like a Halloween pumpkin. Gert tipped the bottle to him, then took a sip. “And?”

Middleman cleared his throat again, paused and looked at the ceiling. Then he nodded. “And the great fleas, themselves, in turn have greater fleas to go on; while these again, have greater still, and greater still, and so on.”

“Bravo!” Gert took another sip from the bottle and handed it to Middleman. “That was actually amazing.” Not for the first time, it occurred to Gert that Anatoly knew so much more than he let on outwardly. His accent just now seemed non-existent.

“Thank you.” Middleman was smiling, his eyes shining. “That was; what’s the word? A crush?” He took another swig and handed it back.

“Yeah. That’s what it was.” Gert took the bottle, stepped behind his desk and sat down hard in his office chair. “You crushed it, for damn sure.”

There were some thumping sounds now in another part of the house, the screen door on this old, but not-yet-broken farmhouse screeched, then banged, followed by a smaller bump.

“Company, Bossman.” Middleman stepped toward the door of this converted bedroom, positioned casually just out of sightline from the entrance, and clasped his hands in a calm manner.

“Hey, Bossman! It’s Case! Permission to come aboard!” His voice was getting louder as he spoke. Then he poked his head around the pine frame of the door. “It’s me.”

“I can see that, son. Permission granted. Tell us what happened.”

“Us?” Case asked as he swung around and entered the room proper. Instantly, he got that chicken-skin sensation when a pair of serene eyes are scanning you from somewhere. Turning quickly, he saw the Bossman’s assistant smiling at him, “Hello, Case. Congratulations.”

“Uh, thanks…how’d you know?” Case Cooler might have had a great big sticker on his forehead that proclaimed his success at the citizenship meeting; wouldn’t have been needed. His smile spoke chapters and a few extra verses.

“I hear things,” Middleman said and reached out to shake the boy’s hand. It was right and proper; Middleman had been the one who found Case, the battered kid had passed out in a ditch and was bleeding profusely after escaping that insane night. Case shook the rough hand offered, “Thanks, Middleman. I owe you my…”

“Oh, now. It was fate!” Middleman wanted no thanks; just the opportunity was enough.

Gert was on his feet, walking around the desk with his hand out. Case pivoted and shook his Boss’s hand. “And you, too, Bossman. I got a home again.” That was more words in one minute than Gert had heard him say in a week.

“You earned it, Case. You’re gonna be an asset to the Guild, son. We’re all better for it.” Maybe it was true, maybe not. The kid had good skills; some truly remarkable talents. But longevity, endurance through the shit and stink is what determined one’s thrival ability. Over time and trail, even some of the toughest gave out.

“Your weather sense smacked the center circle, Case. You’re producing already.”

“Yeah. But it’s gonna be here sooner than I said. Lots of lighting. Might have trouble with the power train.” The fortunate residents here and in Miratown were getting a bit of electricity from a secret generator set up in the dam on Lake Casitas. “A lucky strike could fry a conduit. They’re vulnerable.”

“Great. We’ll need to go and have a talk-to with the mayor.” The power was sporadic and insufficient at times, but it made for a number of advantages that some of the other outposts and enclaves didn’t enjoy. Scrounging the bits and chunks for that slapped-together genny driven by a powerful leak in the war-damaged concrete, for Christ’s sake, had taken months and more than a few lives for a few dear kilowatts. Losing it now was not an option.

More thumps and the screen door again. Heavy footsteps intermixed with lighter ones now. Phil was back finally. Who was with him?  The thunder had taken a break for a while, but it was back as well, and much closer.

Gert had a sudden thought. “He better have that bottle of Jack with him; unopened.” There wasn’t much of a chance of that; drinking these days was nearly a necessity. Truth and sobriety, always early casualties in any war.

“Something else, Bossman,” Case said as he took a seat in front of Gert’s desk. ‘I had a talk with…”

“Major Facilitator reporting for duty, suh!” Phil said loudly as he stomped into the room, an exaggerated salute, British-style. Gert knew he’d blow into the room like that; just like that storm was fixin’ to do out there. He ignored Case for a moment, and focused on this blustery bastard.

“Bloody hell,” Middleman said quietly, this time only for his own sake. He melted farther back into the room; quiet, a witness.

“I’ve got serious news, General!” Grossman’s overacting and his the-whole-world-is-an-asshole attitude was probably a coping mechanism. Gert and Phil had been together since blowing out of SoCal with the Cookman’s barter inventory. The old frycook wasn’t going to use it; definitely couldn’t take it with him where he went. Out looking for his friend Hollywood, and Cookman just didn’t come back.

“Where the hell you been, Major. Over an hour late.”

“Yeah,” he started to say, then a young woman about twenty or so stepped up and paused in the doorway. “Gohbee Alex Seven, sir. May I enter?”

“By all means, Alex,” Gert replied. “Come in.” He gestured to the empty next chair to Chase.

She was light of foot, clearly, and agile as a doe.  She elegantly stepped past her crusty supervisor and sat down next to a suddenly-struck Case Cooler. He was staring at Alex as she floated past and graced the chair with her perfect behind, seeming not unlike a leaf floating onto a still pond. Her tight, black blouse and jeans might have been painted on her slim frame; her breasts appeared compact, her shoulders and arms firm and strong. Her hair, short and feminine, and black as her jeans, framed her olive complexion; it made her jade eyes glow somehow.

In truth, Alex had been a dancer before the world compelled her to adopt a new profession: rebel soldier in training. She wasn’t the only one.

Her light, feminine scent filled Case’s nose, those erotic molecules traveled the few inches upward and exploded somewhere between his olfactory tubercle and his amygdala. The resulting rearrangement of those neurons, along with something no one on earth could properly explain transpired; Case fell in love.

“Thank you. Excuse me, sir,” she said quickly.

Alex looked around at Phil and raised her eyes, looking for permission to proceed. As this happened, Gert stretched his leg under the desk and toed Case’s boot. The kid was back in his Docs; another reason he was more animated than usual. But at the moment, the kid’s mouth hung open and he had the dumbest expression on his face that could’ve possibly been made. Love-struck.

“Tell Bossman what you told us at the outpost, Seven.” Phil said, all business now.

Case felt the nudge and looked around just in time to see Gert close his mouth tightly, compressing lips, then wrinkling his forehead. “Shut your mug, lover boy,” said the gesture. Gert reverted back to his ‘normal’ face just as Alex turned around again and started her report. Case got the message, thankfully. Gert wondered if this kid’s father had been around when Case had really needed him.

“Yessir.” She smiled briefly at Gert, her eyes darted to the right and back, trying to see who was pegging her internal ‘somebody-is-checking-you-out’ radar. He looked kinda cute, according to the return ping. Alex cleared her throat.

“The greensuits are gathering at the road block, sir. We’ve kept that wreckage nice and tight, even doing some concealed welding so that they can’t just drag it off. And if they stay too long, we snipe ‘em off that road.” She stopped and finally looked at Case. She recognized him; he was a Foodie that sometimes had walk-n-talks with her dad, Max Cooper. Looking back around, she continued. “But they don’t stay gone long.”

“That’s something new, then?”

“Yes. They haven’t bothered until recently. We’ve been harassing them north of Ventura and around the water treatment plant. The boys at Vandenberg have been mopping the floor with their shock troops up and down the coast, but there’s just too many.” She paused; took a breath in through her nose and exhaled slowly. The men waited.

“Their light choppers survived long enough to lay waste to Santa Barbara and Carpinteria. Summerland’s a smoking hole, too.” Alex looked down at the floor, pursed her lips.

“Anything else, Alex?” Gert wanted this wrapped up; it was getting serious and there was still a party flaring up soon. “We’ve got more to get to.”

“Um, well, last we heard, there was a solid wall in Goleta; a good defense that stopped their APC group. Probably won’t hold another week. We’ll lose our conduit to Vandenberg.”

“Anything good?” Case asked suddenly. He just wanted to connect verbally to this goddess in the black jeans. He’d see her later, anyway, whether she was there or not. “I mean, we’re kicking their butts somewhere, right?” Oh, why did I say anything? Case thought. It must sound idiotic.

“Actually, yeah,” Alex smiled and Case couldn’t have cared less that the world was sliding into the latrine. This sweet and dangerous creature just made his night…forever.

“We’re cultivating a supply and information tunnel out of Solvang. Mr. Grossman had us digging that ditch a month ago; like he knew.” She looked at him.

“Everybody knew, Seven. Pacific Coast Highway can’t be held for long. They’re too many and we’re too few.”

“Thank you, Alex. Well done. If there’s nothing else…?”

“No, sir.”

“Dismissed. Stay safe, soldier. We need you.”

“Yessir.” She stood up and reached out to Gert, who happily shook the hand of this brave young woman. A woman with a male name. He smiled and nodded as she turned, favored the love-stuck Case with another gleaming beamer, then completed her turn and faced her field boss.

“Return to your outpost, Seven. Well done.” Phil dismissed her with a wave, and like that, she was gone through the door; her scent remained with a forever-changed Case Cooler.

“How long we got at that road block, Phil? We need a countdown clock on that and a plan.” Gert was scribbling some notes in a tiny, un-smudged corner of his legal pad.

“Thirty minutes out for the party, Bossman,” Middleman spoke up from the corner. Grossman didn’t even realize he was in the room.

“Thanks. Yeah, we got a party to get to. Right, Case?” Gert was grinning at the boy; Case’s eyes were unfocused and that goofy lopsided smile was fixed on his face like a sticker.

“Better not get too close, boy,” Phil said to Case. “She’s gonna be a soldier, a cold-blooded killer with a killer body.”

“For Christ’s sake, Phil. Take the night off, will ya?” Gert was trying to keep the morale up around here; it was a full-time gig. “Where’s my Jack, by the way?” He looked at Phil and shook his head slightly while performing a little head-nod at Case: ‘Give the kid a frickin’ break.’ Case was still in a daze.

Phil rolled his eyes and decided to join the human race for a while. “Oh, hell, son! We’re all gonna live and die together sooner than later. May as well have some fun.” Case looked up; a hopeful spec in his eye.

“I hear there’s a party around here somewhere.” Phil Grossman, local Facilitator and general jerkoff reached into his jacket and pulled out a quart bottle of Jack Daniels with a black label. “This here whiskey was made exclusively for Sinatra. Look.” Phil held the bottle up.

“No kidding. There’s his name. What’s more amazing is that’s it’s unopened.”

Phil laughed; how he managed to always sound like an evil cartoon villain still made Gert wonder about the world. “I’m a asshole, Gert. Not a monster.” Gert laughed; that was probably true.

Case finally rose out of his cloud, but surprised the other two men with his question, “Who’s Sinatra?”

“That’s it,” Phil said, turned and started for the door. “Bottle gets opened in ten minutes. See you at the pool.” There was no pool. The party was being held in the barn.

“See you in nine minutes, then,” Gert with his ready reply. Phil was already gone, striding through the house, and a moment later the screen door bumped its signature double-thump.

“Eat, drink, and give Alex a call, Case. For tomorrow, we may die.” Gert mangled the famous phrase, but Case didn’t know or care. Wherever he looked, he saw Alex.

Middleman raised his arm and pointed to a watch that had been gone for years; somewhere in the Mediterranean, if he remembered rightly.

“Got too much to live for to die, Bossman. If it’s okay with you.” The kid was taking this guild thing seriously. That was a good thing.

[] [] []

“What do they call it?” Gert Bossman and Middleman were standing in a back alley at the south end of Miratown; it used to be a sleepy little mountain village called Casitas Springs. Gert was listening to some resonances in the saturated darkness that sounded like signing; but wasn’t, exactly.

Water dripped from the rebar and other jetsam impaled throughout the building’s insides; now mostly outside. The rain was finally here.

“Everybody calls it Faunasong,” Alex Cooper replied, pulling at her poncho’s hoodie.

She was a Gohbee; a message runner, a set of quiet eyes in an outpost looking for the enemy, a second set of hands for the field doctor and all-around general grunt. Her field codename was ‘Seven’ and she was also a resistance soldier-in-training.

Some lightning flashes followed by her boisterous partner pasted stark shadows all around for an instant; compressed the eardrum, and sent a primordial spark through the oldest parts of the human brain: ‘Beware!’ The reaction was unavoidable.

“Never heard such before,” Middleman said with a hushed reverence. It sounded like a farmyard with some very special animals. Animals who could sing. Gert heard him say something else through the rumbles and steady dripping; Russian most likely. Not hard to translate. It was a haunting, melancholy sound.

“It’s a tribute to the animals who fed us in the fire days.” Alex was peering over an overturned flatbed trailer, trying in vain to keep the rain out of her poncho. “Fear and hunger; it’s all we had after a while.”

This area for blocks around had been the target of an aerial bombardment several months ago, and was still an obstacle course of destruction.

“We need to remember them; their voices and songs.” Alex Seven said it like a recitation of a sacred creed. She turned around and fixed the Bossman with a severe look. “Birds, too. Nearly all of them; all the forest creatures; the birds, fish, deer, bears, rabbits…”

She looked away then, back over the edge of the trailer; she thought maybe she heard something out there in the mud puddles and broken bits of the world. That was her job now.

“They’re almost all gone,” Alex resolved with a sad nod of her head.

Lightning flashes; several in a row followed by a deafening volley of thunder. The storm cell must be moving rapidly inland, driven by offshore gales. Those standing instinctively hunched down and looked up.

The Faunasingers were actually imitating animal calls; their various sounds and cries arranged loosely around an operatic vocal range scale. Most of the animal sounds fell in the Contralto to Tenor group, but lower range bass critters like a cow – which actually lows when she speaks – to higher end soprano sounds which include squeaks and many bird calls made for a unique choir. Altogether, with some concerted practice, the tribute was compelling.

“True. The night is way too quiet,” Gert agreed. “Except tonight, of course.”

The Faunasong singers fell silent as a high-pitched alarm klaxon penetrated the nighttime and the thunder; it was in the distance, somewhere down the highway near the road block, more than likely. The deep rumble of some heavy vehicle engines could be discerned through the soles of their boots when the thunder took a breath.

“They sing to remember,” Middleman said. “So very Russian.”

A smoky yellow-flaring streak emerged from somewhere down the road; hard to gauge distance in this rain. A lightning flash just then, but no real reveals.

“There. Signal flare,” said a shadowy figure from atop a heavy packing crate at the rear of this niche in the rubble. “Their radios might just be jammed up somehow.” That was followed by that horsey laugh with the high-pitched, nearly silent squeal. Billi the Fixer was perched on the crate, prone and cuddling a Remington 700 between her breasts; keeping her baby dry.

There was one other present in the reinforced alcove at the back of this half-crumbled building at the edge of town; what was left of it. The mayor of Miratown, Tom Sizemore, adjusted his position to get a less-cluttered view down the littered highway. There was an exposure risk here, but the line-of-site down the road was excellent.

“Is that it? Are they attacking?” his voice was steady, but it held anxiety as well. “We’re still getting ready.”

“No worries, sir,” Billi said as she looked through the Zeiss Victory V8 scope mounted to her rifle; a graduation gift from her very good friend, Gunman. She’d bartered some of her more secretive skills for the old gunslinger’s secret of the long-distance kill.

“That’s just an attention signal. Their radios are for shit with the storm and my little static-generator hidden in the road block.” Billi snickered, “Dumb bastards.” That made Alex laugh a little bit. She loved Billi and her crude talk; no way could Alex get away with that behavior. Billi the Fixer knew what she was doing; that’s how she got her handle.

“How much lead time will we have, do you think?” By his calculations, his hearty-but-poorly-trained defenders would need another hour or two to be fully dug-in to the mayor’s satisfaction. The lightning, which had taken a break, rushed back into the picture, lighting up the scene with a surreal jaggedness.

“Oh, ten minutes; maybe twelve.”

“That’s all? Any way to buy some more time?”

“I could do a strip tease. That might make ‘em slow down and drool around,” Billi said with a serious tone, then shifted the Remington slightly, looked though the long-distance lens again. Something twinkling over there.

Gert and Middleman chuckled softly, despite the tension. Billi the Fixer was a multi-talent. Again, it struck Gert that one Billi was worth a gross of Grossmans.

Alex had giggled again at the thought of the enemy falling over with raging hard-ons in their hands, replacing their rifles. She stifled herself, but barely. She heard Gert clear his throat, so Alex squared her shoulders and concentrated on a shiny spot that had been twinkling a little.

“That’s the spirit, Billi.” One more time, Gert felt so fortunate to have such a talented group at his command.

“That won’t be necessary,” Tom the mayor said. “I hope.”

Tom’s personal chromosomal preference matched his own letters. Tomboys like this single-shot killer were necessary sometimes, though. War makes compatriots of every stripe when the cause is freedom and failure means total darkness.

“I’ve got a shadow in a shadow about fifty yards or so out and left of that old Ford,” Alex said, a little tentatively. She had a small binocular device in her hands. The inconsistent light in this intermittent darkness made locking in on an object challenging. The lightning was playing hide and seek, but not the rain.

“I see him,” Billi the sniper hissed. Her voice almost sounded like a snake. How apt for a deadly asp; she had a tat on her ass of just such a creature. This tension and the imminent edge of the kill made her intensely horny. Payman might get lucky after all.

“Silence, please,” Middleman said, barely audible. Again, he whispered something in Russian; the final word might have been his deity’s name.

“On your pulse, Billi,” Gert said in a hush, then slowly bent to a crouch. His second in command did likewise, as did the mayor. Alex had blended completely into the dark; Gert could just make out her slender form within the contours of the overturned flatbed.

“He’s mine.” Her breath, for the moment, suspended, her heart-rate slowing using a mental relaxer Gunman had taught her. “Mine.” She sounded far away. Even the weather seemed to defer to the woman with the power and will to kill. To defend her turf. The rain slacked, and a heartbeat stretched into an eon. Tom closed his eyes.

The mayor was responsible for the community’s safety; their lives and wallyshops were the real blood in the veins of this survivor commune, despite what Grossman says. Enough of these all-purpose-inventory barter outfits in a region, and intertrade stability shapes up quickly. Eating, safety, consistent community commerce and normalizing daily life make for…

The muzzle flash, partially concealed by a homemade suppressor, lit the insides of Tom’s eyeballs, and his lids flew open. The Remington’s report was quickly absorbed into the night.

From the darkness, out there in the kill zone, a single painful scream was cut short as Billi’s 30.06 shell tore through the soldier’s cheek, ripping his eye and tongue from his head in an efficient way, and finally lacerating the scout’s windpipe as the bullet splintered. Blood filled what was left of his throat, and he fatally drowned in his own life fluid.

“Good kill, Billi.” Gert said it, hearing Gunman’s voice in his head.

“Just doing my job, Bossman.” Billi chambered another round, then took a breath. “One shot, one soul. One at a time.”

“Well done.” Middleman with his opinion quietly directed at no one specifically. Billi disliked praise, he knew. He respected her wishes in this matter.

Tom was as disgusted as Gert was proud. And he was pissed; everything was at least going along, frustrating as it was on a daily basis, his patched-together community of survivors managed to have at least a decent life. But now, these damn foreigners were fracking everything up, and he, Tom, was going to catch the blame.

“Wish we could go retrieve that asset,” Alex said from her dark place in the trailer’s embrace. “Boxload of intel, I’m thinking.” Gohbee Seven was thinking more like a soldier every day, Gert decided. This is how we win this damn war.

“Nope. Not fast enough to cover you if they’re out there with backups.” Billi was beginning to cobble together an operational blueprint of these invaders. And backups were most assuredly part of that plan.

But it was starting to look worse than that. “That poor shlub was bait, I think,” Billi said and it sounded like a cement fact.

That set off a growl in Gert’s gut; one good kill might lead to another. “Are we in the hairs, Billi?” He’d whispered it, but it felt like maybe he was yelling; his throat hurt.

The fat belly of the storm had passed; the rain was less angry and the sporadic thunder sounded petulant and maybe just an echo; or a memory.

Tom was right behind the Bossman in his conclusion. “We just gave ourselves away?” Tom managed to crouch lower, but Middleman couldn’t figure out how he did it. The old Russian ex-mafia hitman and herb gardener was already sitting on the sharp ground, yet this mayor fellow was…

“Could be,” Alex whispered. Or did she? Gert wondered briefly if he’d just read her mind or some freaky thing. Known to happen during a high-stress active danger event. And Gert suddenly felt sure this dark little hole was being reconnoitered; his bald head and hairless body suddenly felt drenched. His clothes took on all the charm of a 19th century deep-sea diving suit.

“Don’t nobody move,” Billi said in a husky tone; not a whisper. Low frequencies don’t travel far. “They got scopers just like we do.”

“Oh, shit.” Tom started to stand up and Anatoly reached out, grabbed the mayor’s arm in what Tom painfully wondered might be a portable steel-jawed vice. The speed and relentless grip made Tom’s jaw flop open. They locked eyes; Tom uttered a tiny strangled cough. The pain was impossible; Tom’s fingers downstream of the blockage were tingly, growing colder, and a few seconds more, possibly lost forever. That’s when the pressure abated; the death grip let him live.

Middleman’s lips were moving, Tom could see through his blurry and blinky eyes. In a sudden attempt to understand what was happening, Tom exhaled completely. Just went limp and felt his breath vent away, followed by a clean intake of moist air.

The mayor got it a moment later. The shape of the old man’s lips changing from a smile to a pursing kiss; a head tilt for a period: ‘stop’ And he did. Now his arm was tingling in a good way; Tom was getting to keep his blood; at least for the moment.

“Alex? Anything?” Billi asked in that same low, horse bass. Could have been a piece of debris moving randomly in the breeze.

Billi hadn’t moved a hair after she’d reset her rifle; just put her head down, eyes forward scanning the darkness in the lowest profile possible. She’d draw the shot, if there was one coming; the telltale remnant of the muzzle flash would’ve left a low-level cousin to Photokeratitis; a kind of optical flash-burn in the sight bubble of an enemy sniper or observer. He, or she, would likely be trained to wait out the first blood assailant and secure the target’s likely ‘best-odds’ spot. After that, it was gut instinct, eye-to-finger reflex, and a pinch of luck.

Instead of a verbal response, Alex issued a low-pitched whistle with two short, descending tones. That’s when the group heard a muffled metallic sound; it was out there a ways, for sure, Billi reckoned. Kinda like a spring that escaped its tube.

“Oh, oh,” Gert whispered. His gut rolled over; he’d heard something like it before. Billi tumbled to it, as well. “Oh, shit. Get ready to run, maybe.”

Gert’s attention was diverted when Middleman raised his scarred right hand with the half-missing pinky in front of his Boss’s eyes: flat palm down, he dropped it an inch, then wiggled his fingers, finished with what Gert thought might have been a ‘go under’ gesture. Looking up into Middleman’s eyes, the old man shifted his gaze behind him where the packing crate supporting Billi had a man-sized section cut out of the side.

“Now?” Gert mouthed; no sound; couldn’t if he wanted to; his throat was baked dry to a solid. To his left, he sensed that Alex had changed her position; the area near the flatbed felt less dense somehow.

Another of those ghostly metallic springs in the misty distance. Could’ve been water running in a fall down the twisted wreckage of a civilization; dislodging the dreams of a happy populace. Carrying a hapless widget to a new resting place.

“We better…” And Gert never finished his thought. There was a flashing hiss in a horizontal volcano of a yellow flame and it was dancing in a whirling vortex of expended propellant and afterburner light that seared the images of everything it passed into a blinding infinity.

And in the span of that infinite moment, Gert saw in his mind a flicker reel of how he and his cohorts came to be cast into this whirling fire. His flight side fired his fight side and some collection of cells wedged into a cozy corner of his Pineal Gland switched on; Gert was just along for the ride now.

[] [] []

What?” Gert had to nearly shout to be heard; the old turntable hooked to Jayman’s kluged-together speaker amplifier was cranked too damn high. “Just a minute,” Gert yelled and raised his hand to make sure Phil Grossman knew he was going to do something about this ear-bleeding sound level. He liked the music, though. Something from Steppenwolf.

“Hey!” Gert should’ve known it was useless. His throat had been feeling raw since this morning at the shooting range. Anything more and he might need a transplant. Actually, that wasn’t funny; the town’s medical situation for surgeries was sorely lacking.

Shaking his head, he stomped away toward Jayman, who was shaking his head and body in what he must have considered dancing; looked like a seizure to Gert.

“Interesting music,” Middleman said in a normal voice, and even though the old barn was huge and the din was total, Case heard this tall man’s words in his own sensitive bones as well as his ears. After all, the delicate changes in nature’s weather enjoyed communing with the kid; why not sound waves?

Despite the imminent threat of rain and lightning, Case’s citizenship party got going early thanks to Phil and his penchant for counting fast. Ten minutes, it certainly wasn’t.

“Yeah!” Case said loudly; his voice still had the youthful remnants of a soprano; the higher-range tones struggled to overcome the ‘smoke and lightning, and heavy metal thunder.’ “This oldman music has got balls for being a dinosaur!”

Middleman knew this tune; American rock and roll was a not-so-secret perk amongst a certain progressive set of members of the Party; and mafia family youngsters. “We are all born to be wild, young Case.” Anatoly made it his business to be informed; it affected one’s breathing privileges often. “You most of all.” This kid was a true nature’s child; just like Alex Seven. If liberty was to survive, these children might see it happen. Their children, surely.

So glad the test is over,” Case yelled as the song segued into its famous hook…

“…Fire all of your guns at once and…explode into space…” And that’s when the wall of sound came crashing down. Every ear puckered seemingly; a faint ringing.

” …almost pissed my pants waiting…” Case yelled into the naked quiet, and his words were flung through everyone’s space and absorbed into the hay and ancient wood beams. The laughter that followed was even louder than that; and it lasted several minutes. Case laughed the loudest.

The man the Party had once called, ‘The Red Wolf’ for his style of ‘competition adjustment’ smiled, remembering a certain blonde secretary who seemed to lose her clothes whenever an American rock song was played; this one specifically. No one knew it, but his mastery of hypnotism had been a potent skill in Anatoly’s quiver.

Some thunder spoke up as Gert rejoined Case and Middleman; Phil was talking to a young woman over by the temporary bar who had arrived with the group of Foodie farmers. She was pretty, early thirties at the perfect kissing height with an unusual shade of auburn hair that just touched her waistline. Probably why the old letch was interested; he had a thing for redheads. Also, Gert was fairly sure she was married.

“Excellent choice, Boss,” Middleman said with a genuine bounce in his voice. The thunder sound wasn’t from outside, it was the intro to a Doors tune; the last thing Morrison ever recorded. Anatoly knew this fact, too. The youngsters in the Family House were ever in awe of him and what he knew.

“And at the right level.” Gert was sweating, his face moist from the jump in humidity tossed together with the seasonal warmth. A cool rain storm was fine with him. That big dam to the south, however, was another concern. “Morrison was dead after this tune, like what? Two weeks?”

“That is true. In Paris. I think he knew he was a…” and Anatoly spoke a Russian word that Gert had heard before. What was it?

“…a dead man.” The mediator finished his thought in English. He felt it was rude to use native words to shield private thoughts. Gert nodded, that was it.

“Whose got my rap albums?” Payman asked the room in general. “Gotta throw down.” He turned and rifled again through the old cardboard box that contained a few dozen vinyl albums from a world that couldn’t have conceived of today’s shattered reality. Well, Barry McGuire, maybe. They would recognize Payman, most likely.

“They may be extinct,” Middleman said casually, and looked up at the ceiling. Couldn’t be sure, but he might’ve felt a cold sting on his cheek. Gert looked over at his friend and second-in-command; something about the way he said that…

“Never finished telling you what my friend at the dam told me, Bossman” The music was right and the crowd was content; even Phil seemed resigned to a spate of fairly good behavior. That could change if that woman’s husband showed up. The Boss felt a spasm of annoyance, and he decided to keep an eye on his slippery partner.

“Tell me later.” Gert couldn’t possibly talk business now. Phil and that damn dam was already ruining his buzz. That’s when he felt a warm and feminine hand slide across his shoulders, then stroke his moist cheek.

“Who needs another drink?” Sammi-T appeared from behind Gert with a tray of small empty glasses turned upside down and in the other hand, a bottle of clear liquid. The label was faded, but the numbers ‘1800’ were still legible.

The party was finally humming now, Gert noticed as he inspected his waitress. This was much needed. The enemy was finally getting around to peeking past the road block, now that the ‘Nuke plant meltdown’ story had been debunked. Outpost reports detailing their incursions were increasing. The farmers and gardeners were close to fleeing. Have to break the stress; keep everyone focused staying strong. The guild’s Racketeer was doing her part, apparently.

“I’ll take two,” Case said, not looking at the tray of glasses. “And they’re my size.” He was getting drunk, and his hometown ‘aw, shucks, persona was getting eclipsed by his gonads. “I’ll have another shot, too.” He grinned at Sammi-T and she returned it.  He’d probably be grinning at Alex if she were here, but she’s still on duty, he’d heard.

Sammi-T was wearing a black, low-cut camisole top with a gleaming silver necklace choker; her gym shorts were two sizes too big, but that didn’t stop most of the men – and Billi when she was here earlier before heading out on recon – from checking her out. Parading her assets around and serving drinks wasn’t her thing usually, but she loved the hell out of that Case Cooler and if this made him smile, then hell, yes.

“Help yourself,” Sammi said to the group, but she stopped and peered deeply into Case’s eyes, and he was locked in just as tight. His pants moved, and that broke the spell. “Be right back,” Case said and walked away towards the back of the barn.

“He’s having a hard time, I guess,” Phil walked into the group from somewhere and bellowed close to Gert’s ear; the Bossman winced, Middleman saw it, and tensed. Gert looked over quickly; executed the briefest ‘don’t’ head nod in history.  Phil had no clue whatsoever that if this gentle Russian mediator felt it necessary to tear Grossman’s head off and boil it for dinner, the Middleman wouldn’t even work up a sweat.

“Guess you’d know, Grossman,” Sammi said, now a master of the perfect sneer since meeting Phil for the first time. Off she went without checking to see if everyone was served. She detested the Facilitator.

“Something I said?” Phil asked the easily-answered question while watching that nice butt in the stupid shorts break his heart. If he had one to break, that is.

“What do we know about the enemy’s plans, Phil? What’s your guy say?” Guess he was talking shop anyway. No wonder he couldn’t sleep more than three hours a night.

“Disintermediation.” Phil said it as he was turning around; Gert didn’t hear him well. Middleman heard him just fine, didn’t know the word, but felt a chill nonetheless. That didn’t happen very often. Last time it did…

“Sorry, what? Disinterested constipation?” Gert was genuinely confused. That didn’t ever happen.

Phil stepped closer, about three inches from Gert’s face, and over-enunciated in a loud and fishy breath, “Dis. Inter. Media. Ayeshun.” That was capped off with Phil’s ‘try-and-top-me’ smile; a sloppy mix of arrogance and ignorance. Gert just casually pushed him away, and Phil acquiesced easily. Gert wondered how close Anatoly had come to killing this oaf just now; probably would’ve if Phil wasn’t drunk as a Christian fish in a beer-barrel.

“Such a fancy word for; what? Skip the foreplay?” Gert was being facetious, but would not have been surprised if that was right.

“Well, in a way; yeah. And more apt than you may know.” Phil was weaving a little, and he looked around for a place sit down, before he fell down. Middleman pulled a chair over and placed it behind this unpleasant-but-necessary boar of a man.  Phil sat with a heavy landing and a reminder of what he had for lunch. “Thanks,” Grossman said; it sounded reluctant in the mediator’s ears. Phil burped again.

“Sorry. Look, it’s just a way of saying, cut out the middleman, delete the seat and tighten the knot.” It took a moment to realize who was in the audience. Phil looked up quickly at Middleman; the old man was studying him just as intensely.

“Cut out the middleman?” Gert asked. He looked over at Anatoly. “This middleman? What…?”

“My shadow at Van says it’s an operational project they just launched. Disintermediation refers to a set of coordinated attacks up and down the pacific coast at communities like ours. Cut out the middle, the resistance collapses; now it’s easier to bust the flanks.”

“Where is that?

“The Bay area to the north and Los Angeles to the south. I hear San Diego took a handful of nukes. Should be quiet down there for the next few thousand years. They’re not worried about that.”

“Nuked?” Middleman asked. Whatever joy this occasion had produced was gone and as dry as the straw he stood upon.

“A sweet mix of classic nuclear with a neutronic chaser for the survivors.” Grossman, for a brief moment, took on a haunted shadow; he’d seen something. “Ex-survivors.”

“For fucks sake,” Gert said through clamped teeth. “Makes sense now.”

“No way our brave boys and girls can hold that wave back.” Phil’s respiration had normalized, maybe he had sobered up a little.  His face was still strained-looking. “Outlook, ominous. Prognosis, fatal. That’s no shit.”

“We need some disintermediation of ourselfs,” Middleman said. “Cut their middle out.”

“Good plan, Vlad. Just how exactly?” The Facilitator was a powerful man, but he was still vulnerable to booze headaches. Phil rubbed his temples; the joints in his hands sending pain signals via C-fibers to his dorsal horn on his spinal cord, lighting up Phil’s central nervous system, and last stop, the amygdala. Same place Case fell in love, Phil felt the arthritis flaring as he dug into his forehead seeking some relief.

The music changed, and the disco era paid a short visit to this party in the mountains, the enemy and their agenda of mayhem not more than an hour away. And speaking of Case; Gert saw him emerge from a small tack room in the rear of the barn. He was just standing there now, looking at the scene, a funny smile on his face.

The silence stretched between the men in the midst of the party; music playing, alcohol flowing, even some good sexy fun. The rest of the folks here didn’t seem to notice the dark cloud forming over these men. They did notice the rain as it began to drip in various places into the barn.

Now Gert saw Sammi-T slip from behind the tack room door. Her shorts were on backward. She slithered up behind Case and snaked her arm around his waist; her hips were moving to the music, counterpoint to her head. The Bee Gees with what might’ve been the night’s secret theme music. Same tune the paramedics used administering CPR.

“We must stop their advance, the way we stopped the Huns. Put a boulder in their path, an obstacle they cannot pass. “

“Let’s start with our good intentions,” Phil said with a grin. “That’s what we’ve got at the moment.”

“We’ll need something a bit more…”

“Look who just joined the party” Phil said rudely, cutting Gert off when he saw Alex Seven appear in the torch-lit opening. He added a short head-nod towards the big doors.

“Told her to report in if things got bad,” Phil Grossman said. There was tension in his voice; if he was worried…

Alex had been looking at Case and Sammi when Gert called her over, his voice rising over the music and drawing the attention of the large group of farmers. They’d coalesced by the bar, no doubt planning their escape from the Huns, and when Alex appeared, they suddenly hushed. The bartender got busy all of a sudden.

“Recon Alex Seven reporting as requested, sir.” She was facing Phil but speaking to Gert. That was damned clever of her. “Situation update.” Alex paused. “And it’s not good.”

“Spill it, soldier,” Phil said. Gert was the Guild boss, Phil managed the martial end of the machine. “Got a feeling the night is about to get darker.”

“Yes sir. Forward eyes tell us there’s a dense presence forming at the road block. The weather is a factor, they’re moving slower than usual. And their comm gear is just static noise thanks to Billi.” She took a breath while Case moved across her line of sight in the background. Sammi wasn’t with him now.

“Their engineers are working at the blockage. Won’t be long now. We’ve got some forces in the spaces between the spaces after the road block; we’ll delay and maybe degrade their point, but not their resolve.”

“Any reports on armor or air assets?”

“Negative on the birds. They’ll have to fully replace that inventory. Vandenberg saw to that. They haven’t had anything bigger than a photo drone in the sky for weeks. And those we auger almost immediately. And no armor. Van thinks they moved it to San Francisco. They weren’t expecting a fight. They were wrong.”

“Fast learners,” Middleman suggested. “The shelves are not endless.”

“Attrition is a bitch,” Phil said flatly.

“But ground forces have been filling the highway recently. They have a new plan now. A sword slice is what our com guy said they call it. Some foreign language. Middle East he said.”

“Disintermediation is what the lawyers call it,” Gert concluded.

“The soldiers just call it their job. Just like I do.” And Alex didn’t look like a 20-year-old ballerina trying to decide which studio to attend. She looked like a defender of her own honor; her land. A killer if that’s what it took.

“Thank you, Seven,” Phil said and his weariness sounded evident. “Anything else?”

“Yes sir. The mayor is not happy. He wants you down there, Bossman. He demanded it many times.”

“He did, huh? The Bossman will save the day.” Sarcasm, check. “And if I don’t?”

“The party here,” and she looked around; there was Case, that woman Sammi was back, but Case seemed to be looking over here. ”…won’t end well. We need a set of command eyes and you’re the Guild voice. He says you’re calling the shots on what to do.’

Gert reached out and poked Phil in the shoulder; he’d closed his eyes. “Isn’t that your department?”

His eyes stayed closed. “My mighty forces are digging in. I’ve done what I can do.” He gestured to Alex, who was standing ‘at ease’ and looked like a force unto herself. “She knows what to do. Everybody got a promotion today. Everybody’s a soldier.”

Gert looked at Alex; no wonder she was beaming. “Congratulations, Cooper.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Middleman nodded at her; his beaming eyes conveyed his admiration when his words could not.

“Prepare to move out in five minutes, Cooper. Let’s go see the mayor.”

“Yes sir.”

“I’ll get the armor and our field kits,” Middleman said.

“Like you to stay here. The party will end if you leave.” Gert smiled, his eyes added a ‘please.’

“As you wish, sir. I’ll be ready to leave in four minutes.” And off Middleman went, leaving Gert sputtering, then chuckling. “Honey badger,” Gert said to the others.

In a dizzy sort of spin as the Bossman looked up and across the room, his eyes faltered when he tried to lock onto the big double doors; he noticed the music had stopped, and the rain was now pouring in through the roof in a waterfall. The sound of rushing water rose; maybe that’s why the music was muted.

Thunder; the entire barn was a cacophony of thunder, now his vision reversed in a black and white strobe; negative, positive and back again. Panic! Breathing in his chest; hurt. Heavy weight. A large hand appeared in front of his eyes; deformed and beckoning. Middleman’s face replaced the hand, his lips were moving, then the old Russian reached out, and Gert felt himself falling. But falling up, not down, the ground was falling away, and he, Gert, was rising. A yellow flash, then blackness, and a tone. A steady tone like an audio oscilloscope. And wet. Sour wetness. Copper. So tired. I’m….

“Here! Over here! Come on, goddamn it! Move!”

“Cover that flank, get your asses down!”

Machine guns stuttered nearby. And an explosion, two; yelling and pain in the darkness.

Gert felt a dull sensation now; his face was moving, but he wasn’t doing it. Gert didn’t know what the hell he was doing. Where the fuck am I? Extreme strangeness being so disassociated.

“He’s tickin’ and clickin’, Doc. He’s next.”

“Careful, careful! He’s got a chunk of pipe in his leg. Watch it, dammit!”

“Oh, man. Hey! The mayor’s dead. He’s there. And another one here, Doc.”

“Move! Okay, this one’s gone. His spine is toast. That rocket cooked him. His body protected the Guild guy, looks like; the Boss. Here! Watch that corner!”

“Get him on the bus, Manny. He’s a gold plus, family man. Be careful.”

“Roger. How’s she? Her head looks bad.”

“She’ll live. Her eye might go south, though. Might lose that eye.”

“Hey, Seven! Over here! Found your Bossman. He’s still pumpin’.”

Gert heard Alex’s voice fade up louder as she spoke to unseen comrades; giving orders to some, encouragement to others. A pause then he felt another dullness on his chest. “Right here, sir. The evac is running.”

Gert wanted to respond; tell her the surgical facilities were not so great. Ask about Anatoly and Billi, and just exactly what did happen? Gert’s body ignored him.

“Got a bad leg wound, Bossman. We’re gonna get you on the table soon.”

What about the Middleman? The invasion? The…

“There she goes! We did it!” A voice from the void, out there. Who? Where’d she go?

“Had to,” Alex said loudly. Gert felt the ground move under him; a gentle rocking. Then, something crackled in his ears, like a stopper had popped out. A glaring gash appeared in the darkness above him, and a pain like he never would have imagined chomped on his leg; it seemed to vibrate and thrum with the ground.

“Here’s comes the shock…” The air moved in a breathing fashion; out, then back. The air smelled of smoke now; cordite, blood. His nose clocked in now, after his ears.; odors have a special power to stimulate.

And Gert felt clearer now; the station got tuned a bit better, and a white noise filled his ears and his mind struggled to fit an image to the rushing sound, that rumbling. The sound was outside of his mind; it was rising, rumbling from somewhere down the…

“Gonna be hard now that she’s gone.”

Gert could feel his body being moved, smelled chemical and metallic-tinged air, his ears registered a closed space now, sounds were sharper, closer. The white patch in front of him widened and shapes – soft and indistinct – floated and hovered and vanished.

Alex’s voice was suddenly near; her subtle scent that Gert remembered was now hugging him, caressing him. A seam tore inside Gert and he knew he was crying; something hot was traversing his cheek. The rest of the picture was forming, memories were solidifying, sensations and smiling faces drifted into his inner vision; a craggy old man’s face with wisdom that would now be lost; forever.

“Bossman. Our middleman is dead. He’s…” and now her tears joined the sounds in his small window to this world. She wept openly now; the ambulance bus was moving and just she and Gert and Billi were left to transport. Other arrangements were being made for their dead friends.

“We bought some time, sir.” Alex sniffled and fought to regain her soldier’s staunch. “The way to the coast should be completely checked. We just gut-punched their operation; took out their brunt. Shut down their mid-section to the sea.”

Gert whispered something; he could feel his face a bit more now; his lips were touching, now parted. He tried again. It was a tough word, a lawyer’s word.

Alex breathed in, and let out a long sigh. “Yes sir. And now we can help the other enclaves.”

“But, those enemy bastards are mine.”

It was the first time Gert had ever heard her swear.

The End.

~MaryLou Morning

August 28-Sept 1 2017

MORNING STORY
13,281 words
All Rights Reserved 2017

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