Leti took up the feeder from its holder and squeezed a few drops of tea into her mouth. Coffee was not going to help, not when her stomach was already churning like Jupiter’s poles.
Christian hovered at the viz, monitoring the debris field from which they had just emerged. “I believe we’re through the worst of the junk, Leti.” He settled into his seat and strapped in.
“Yes, Leti.” He answered confidently, a confidence she did not trust.
Leti did not want to verbalize what was flitting through her mind. The last 40 hours had been hell. Her ship, the Artemis, had hit a shitload of space debris…losing a portion of its landing gear, an escape pod and two blasters. She and her two crew members were limping through space, totally defenseless. It brought Leti no comfort that the Sino-Nissi, her main competition, was probably arriving at the drill site.
“God, I miss my porcelain mug.” She squeezed up another mouthful of tea, moving the lukewarm liquid along the seam of the pouch, pushing the dab between her lips. “Fucking space.” She had given up multiple sleep sessions trying to figure out a way through. “I’m so pissed off right now.”
“You’re sleep deprived,” said Christian.
“My brain’s not firing on all cylinders, that’s for sure.”
“That’s a funny saying,” said Christian.
The expression was her grandfather’s, who in his youth had understood and worked on all things automobile. He was a mechanic, one of the last of a breed of humans on Earth put out of business by robots. He switched to fixing bots by the end of his life. He was lucky to have been clever enough to understand the complex machinery operating in the earliest AI.
“We could not have anticipated this anomaly.” Christian had read something into her silence. Now he was trying to reassure her, yet not invalidate her feelings. He was programmed to be an encourager and a diffuser of tension, which on occasion, left Leti feeling massively grumpy.
She punched the empty feeder pouch into the trash chute and slammed on the blue button, the one that sent all of her waste and hers alone, since Christian didn’t create any waste, into the compression tank. She snarled at her co-pilot. “We mastered this scenario in our training. What happened to us is inexcusable.”
“That’s not true, Leti. Unknowns can be found in all corners of the cosmos. We may have mastered the training scenario, but we are not masters of the universe.”
She let out a coarse laugh. “You made a joke, Christian. Do you know who the Masters of the Universe are?”
“No, Leti. I do not.”
“Search the net. I think you’ll be pleased,” she said.
“Fair enough, but I won’t embark on such a search until you deem us safe,” said Christian.
Leti glanced over the readouts. “I deem us safe for now, as safe as we can be inside the belly of the beast.”
Christian waved her over. “There’s one more thing. Can you come here?” He pointed at the viz, tapping the screen lightly. “You can see it for yourself, Leti. Come here, Leti. Leti, Come here.”
These redundancies made her want to smack him. So far she had refrained from doing so. Abusing her co-pilot more than she already did was not an option she wanted to entertain. She unbuckled and floated in behind him. His slender back arched delicately, like a dancer’s.
“Is the Sino-Nissi still on the radar?” she asked.
“Yes, they’re descending.”
“Shit, they’re gonna beat us.”
Christian kept tapping at the viz. “The debris. I think it is all rock, probably a small body.”
Leti squinted at the images. “By small body, you mean small bodies.”
“I mean it started out as one small body. I am working out a theory on why it became a debris field. This debris field was not on any of our maps.”
“Well…I sure can’t tell if it’s all rock…How in the hell can you?”
Christian laughed. “It’s a guess, but as we were passing through, I took the opportunity to scoop up a few fragments with our research net. I will analyze what we collected, after which we might be able to determine their origin. In the meantime, you should get some sleep, boss. You know what they say, early to bed, early to rise, makes a woman healthy, wealthy and wise.”
He had a way with old timey sayings. She had to hand him that.
Ty woke her four hours later and unstrapped her from the bunk. Ty, the third crew member, was her personal assistant and a different breed of AI than Christian. He existed in an aluminum cylinder and rode around on four wheels. The wheels were magnetized, so even in space he motored across the floor as if he were moving on Earth. He performed most of his duties with mechanical arms and though his body was the carapace of a bot from an earlier era, his intelligence chip had been upgraded for the trip to Titan.
“You are due at the bridge in approximately five minutes,” he said in his low male voice.
Leti ran her tongue across her teeth and floated to upright. Ty began setting out her work clothes while she pushed off her bunk and glided to the sink. She squirted a bubble of recycled water into her wash cloth and rubbed it over her face. Glazed anew by micro gravity water, she reached under the sink. She knew where her pouch of Scotch was by feel. She squeezed out a shot and swallowed it down. The throat burn jolted her awake. Good.
“Did Christian find anything interesting?” she asked Ty.
“There was metal wreckage in the debris he collected, along with rock.”
“Weird.” she said.
“Indeed,” said Ty.
“What was the name of the unmanned ship that crashed on Titan last year?” she asked her assistant.
“Two years ago, Santa Maria, the Vatican’s unmanned space vessel disappeared into Titan’s atmosphere. We don’t know if it truly crashed. Six months ago, Freya, the Nordic research vessel exploded somewhere above Titan. Two humans and one AI were lost.”
“The metal could be pieces of the Freya. Has Christian done a full analysis yet?”
“Christian maintains a working theory,” said Ty.
“Give me the synopsis.”
“Based on the velocity of the debris as it hit us, Christian suspects the Sino-Nissi might have intentionally blasted apart a small body of some sort.”
“And not warned us?”
“That is correct,” said Ty.
“What about the metal?”
“Perhaps, the Sino-Nissi was damaged in the process.”
Leti whistled through her still-wet lips. “Crazy theory…Strike it from the log until we verify.”
“I will strike it from the log,” said Ty.
Leti dressed quickly, then pulled her parka out of the hatch. She had lowered the internal temps to save fuel.
“Call coming in,” Christian said as Leti entered the bridge.
“From where? The mining company?” She launched herself toward her seat.
“From Earth, your hometown. It’s your ex-husband.”
“Great,” she moaned, settling herself. She buckled and zipped up her parka until the metal pull was floating under her chin.
“I’m about to connect. You want visual?” said Christian.
“Not really.” Leti ran her fingers through her greasy hair and used her sleeve to scrape some of the water off her cheeks and nose. She waited for Blake’s face to appear and lifted her hand in greeting as he came into focus.
“Can you hear me?” she asked. “Can you see me?”
“Yeah,” he said.
Blake’s new wife was toiling in the background, cooking something over the stove. It must have been morning there. She was still dressed in a slinky pink robe.
“How’s Tommy?” she asked, then remembered her manners. “How are you and Bing?”
“We’re fine. He’s fine. Trying to figure out a few things for the summer. Tommy wants to go to that soccer camp I told you about, so we need an extra six thousand.”
Asking for money, hurried communication and lack of eye contact. What an asshole.
“What are you reading or watching?” she asked.
“What?” he said.
“You’re not looking at me. You’re multi-tasking. Right?”
He scratched above his left ear and forced his eyes on her. “It’s business, Leti…the business of parenting our child. I didn’t call to be social.”
“I’m going to differ with your opinion here. Even though I’m a billion kilometers from Earth, I still have feelings…not to mention, I’m sacrificing for the Americas.”
Blake laughed. He had a beautiful, sonorous laugh. Bing approached the computer behind him and flicked him on the cheek playfully, after which her youthful face took over the screen. “She’s right, Blake. Hi, Leticia,” she said, “How is it going up there?”
“Hi, Bing.” Leti allowed herself a smirk. “You hear that? Even your wife is nice to me.”
“Okay, okay…So HOW ARE YOU?” Blake asked.
Bing exited the frame, waving as she went.
“I’m a mess. This mission sucks. Christian and I almost wrecked the ship a few hours ago and the mining contract has just been forfeited.”
“Wow. I’m sorry. How is Christian? It sounds like you’re not happy.”
“Christian’s always upbeat, perfect in all the ways one hopes, you know, an ideal space traveler.”
“Okay…Well…Will you think about the soccer camp because I have to get to work soon.”
“Yeah, yeah…I’ll transfer the money. Is Tommy there? Can he talk?”
“In the shower,” said Blake.
“Avoiding me?” said Leti.
“What do you think?”
Leti said nothing, so Blake filled in the silence, like he often had in their relationship. Strange how Christian often did the same thing.
“It’s a bummer about your issues up there. It’s dangerous, I know…but you’re a great pilot. I’m sure you’ll figure things out.”
“I don’t know shit out here…I make it up as I go…”
“You sound stressed,” he said.
“We almost died.”
Blake glanced left. He was disinterested or protecting himself from making an emotional connection. “I don’t know what to say, Leti. You love space. You chose this career.”
“It pays well,” Leti said. “One of us needed to make money for things like expensive soccer camps.”
Blake’s head snapped up. He was focused on her now, glaring and hating on every inch of her semi-gloss face. “So. That’s great, yeah…awesome. I’ll monitor whether your money comes through. God bless the Americas and all that shit.”
Leti planted her cheeks into her palms and rubbed her eye sockets. Her eyeballs were itchy and by God she was an asshole.
She heard Bing’s voice. “Leticia. Are you still there? Tommy’s out of the shower. I think he wants to talk to you.”
Leti lifted her face as she heard her son’s greeting.
“Hey, Mom.” He was wiping his spiky hair with a towel, seeming way too mature for fourteen.
Leti sprang into cheerful mode. “Hi-ya, Tom Tom. Is that you?”
“You’re not looking like that freshman I left behind. You sure you’re the same person?”
Tommy chuckled, pleased with her observation. “So, how’s it going out there?” he asked.
“Not like I planned, but I think the job will get done, one way or the other. On the up side, if I complete this contract, I’ll be set. No more long trips away.” She blinked a few times. Damn, her eyes were a mess. “Anything you want to tell me?” she said. “I’ll probably need to get going soon.”
“Dad told you about the soccer camp? The Canadian one?”
“Canadian,” she said. “Okay. That’s why it’s expensive. Anyway…Yeah, he told me. It sounds good to me. You have some friends attending?”
“Jordan and maybe Edgar.”
“How’s Español?” she asked. She had seen his mid-year report card earlier in the week.
“Not like I planned, but I think the job will get done, one way or the other.”
She laughed and shook a parental finger at the screen. “That’s an A+ for snarky humor, but don’t fail that class. Save yourself the agony of repeating.”
“I know,” he said. “Hey, you’re sort of breaking up.”
“Ok. Let’s talk soon, but remember that I love you. Only 9 months and 26 days. When I come back…no more trips, I promise! Can’t wait.”
“Okay. Bye. Love you too.”
The screen went dark. She was shivering.
“Christian. Can we bump up the temps. One degree.”
“No problem, Leti,” Christian said.
“Ty,” she said. “Would you put some of those drops in my eyes?”
The robot motored to the first aid kit and pulled out a tubular bottle. She tipped her head back and prepared for the application.
He placed a suction cup attached to the bottle over her socket. She forced her eyes open.
“Ty…Am I a bad person?” she asked. She could not read him. His one camera lens, its black glass-like bulb revealed no emotion.
“You do your duty,” he said.
He shot three or four drops into her right eye and waited to make sure the liquid had entered.
As he removed the suction cup, Leti pressed against her eyelid. “Does that make me a good person?” She rubbed the lid back and forth.
“You would do well to avoid rubbing like that,” Ty said.
“I know.” She opened her eyes for the second application.
“It makes you good by machine standards.” Ty shot the drops into her left eye.
She blinked repeatedly to incorporate her eye juices with the medicine. The coolness was soothing. She did not rub her lid.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Doing my duty is a great pleasure,” said Ty.
Ty was the perfect slave.
Christian had finished initial tests of the collected debris. He reported that some of the metal fragments were in fact off of the Sino-Nissi, which neither proved nor disproved his theory, and Leti made sure he understood her skepticism.
“I find it difficult to imagine the crew of the Sino-Nissi blasting away at a piece of rock to create such havoc that might slow us down or even end our journey and our lives. They would not do something so dangerous and unethical. Sure, they’re speeding toward Titan, attempting to beat us and win first drilling rights, but you’re talking about murder.”
The group for which her competitors worked maintained a stellar reputation in the solar system. They were known to be aggressive in business, but not reckless. Not destructive. Five years before, Leti had considered accepting a job to fly for the Asian Space Cooperative, but South American Mining had wanted her badly enough to double their offer. Her choice to pilot for SAM was all about money. She did not consider the Sino-Nissi her enemy.
“So you want to rule out sabotage?” he asked.
“I have ruled out sabotage, ” she answered. “Put it in the log.”
Leti and Christian flew their semi-disabled ship around Titan, as far away from Saturn as possible. Leti used the moon’s gravitational pull to draw lower toward the massive ice-rock, thus saving fuel. After a few hours, she needed to unbuckle and relieve herself. Ty assisted her, but even with his help, the process always took a while. Christian stayed at the viz and monitored their trajectory.
Before Leti had a chance to resettle, Christian reported, “We lost radar contact with the Sino-Nissi about seven minutes ago.”
“They’re probably way under the haze or on the other side of the moon,” she said.
“Should we look for them?” With a tilt to his head and lifting of the eyebrows Christian wore his best question mark face. What an AI marvel he was. Of course, his question was genuine and Leti needed to take it seriously. To spend energy and time looking for the Sino-Nissi would be off-script, therefore not permitted by the company. However, there was a protocol for rescues. Space law required that competing entities always be ready to abort a mission for the sake of saving lives. Few pilots had to be convinced of this international norm.
“We ought to scan for them,” she said. “That we must do, at least.”
Titan’s faint gravitational pull anchored them poetically in a yellow-orange methane haze. The colors in this part of space were view-worthy, but Leti was ignoring them and zeroing in on the barren surface of Titan. Titan, the moon of promise, that which was about to become the prize of Earth’s corporate giants. Rare minerals and methane, so many necessary elements for robot technology were assumed to be hiding under its frozen shell. She brought the ship through the haze and into a closer orbit. Christian had been working for 20 hours straight, so Leti sent him to recharge.
She tugged the hood of her parka forward, but was still shivering. She turned up the heat another degree.
Ty commented. “Was it your wish to turn up the heat, Leti?”
“Yes, Ty. I turned up the heat,” she said.
“I will recalibrate our fuel needs,” he said.
Leti brought the Artemis around, circling the area where the Sino-Nissi had gone off grid. Visibility was next to impossible, but on her third pass, she spotted the vessel, buried nose first in the Kraken Mare. The wreckage was difficult to see because of the low lighting of the crashed ship. Low lighting meant there would be very little power for life support…it was a bad sign. Not that a crashed ship in deep space could ever be interpreted as anything but catastrophic. There were always challenges and unknowns associated with space travel, but one could usually count on precision engineering to figure a way through a disaster. The wreckage of the Sino-Nissi indicated that something both very bad and unexpected had taken place.
Leti contemplated her next moves. For her to fly in closer, she needed Christian’s help. Reviving him would be no easy task given that he had not recharged to full power, but moving quickly was crucial in case any of the crew had managed to survive.
She floated across to Christian and unplugged him from the recharge dock. She floated back, carrying him to his seat. She buckled him in. She gently slapped his cheeks with the pads of her fingers. It was really more like tapping him. The scenario reminded her of pulling her adolescent son out of bed. Christian, like Tommy, woke up slowly, reluctantly.
Christian’s software eventually buzzed to life and began pairing with the ship, alignment taking place within his spinal tube, from tailbone up. He moaned and nodded, in and out of consciousness though that comparison was not quite accurate. After about 15 minutes, he emerged from the fog as his cheerful self.
With Christian assisting her, they flew toward the Sino-Nissi, observing the wreckage 100 meters above the surface. She hailed the crew multiple times and waited for a response, knowing there might be a delay.
“Sino-Nissi. This is Artemis. Do you read? Are you in distress? she asked and waited.
Nothing. Not even the buzz of an open radio channel.
It was fair to assume all those on board were ice cubes. The Sino-Nissi was home to six humans and one AI. Three engineers, three scientists and one corporate executive. The crew had voyaged to do research on Titan and to stake a claim on behalf of the Asian Space Cooperative. The Sino-Nissi was poorly equipped for anything other than that.
“I think they’re all dead,” she said finally.
“All the humans, most likely,” said Christian. “Are there any AI on board?”
Had Christian not seen the crew manifest? Where had she seen it? She couldn’t remember. “Yes. One.”
“If we were in trouble, we would hope the Sino-Nissi would come to our aid,” said Christian.
“Yes, but we know…”
“The AI might have survived,” interrupted Christian.
“Maybe,” she said. International rescue law included most AIs.
She let out a long, slow breath. “With our current deficiencies, we would probably have to give up the mining site to rescue any AI. No mining on Titan. Do you know what that means for me?”
“No bonus?” said Christian.
“No bonus. No retirement,” she said.
Leti had to slow down her mind. Some bullshit feels were building in her chest and she hella did not want that creature to emerge. She often visualized her feelings as a feline, back arched and hissing. She reached out her hand to stroke the fur of the cat. With care, she was able to calm it into a purring mass. She had been encouraged to develop a technique for compartmentalizing emotions during her first year of pilot’s training. This visualization had gotten her through more shit-hole situations than she cared to count.
“I propose we scan one more time,” she said. “If we see or hear any sign of life, we attempt a rescue. Is that valid?” Leti actually turned her torso to her First Officer to see directly into his green-pixel eyes. Had they flickered?
“Yes, Leti. I think so,” he said finally. “I think your proposal is valid and moral. Any rescue will risk our mission and our safety on the return voyage, but I commend you for your morality.”
“That’s an interesting answer.” Leti turned back to controls. She hated that Christian had brought up the money or had she brought it up?
They flew in, closer still. Leti hailed them. “Sino-Nissi. Do you read?” She repeated the message 20 times, at least, pausing to listen between each hail.
The silence yawned, howled and screamed. Leti peered through the viz, then the telescope viewer where she was able to see more details. The hull of the ship appeared to have buckled, maybe due to its landing.
Christian shifted nervously in his seat. “Our proximity is unwise,” he reported.
She ignored him. “Have our ship record everything.”
She studied the wreckage, the rip in their hull and the obvious pummeling the body had taken, maybe as it had traveled through the debris field. It looked almost…pockmarked…
“They must have encountered the same debris field we did,” Christian said.
“You still believe in the sabotage theory?” she asked him.
“I do. It explains what we see before us. The Sino-Nissi was hit by the debris that they created,” he said.
“To mention this in the log now will only taint the memory of the dead,” said Leti.
“What shall we do?” asked Christian.
“About your theory? We forget you ever mentioned it.”
“No. About the bodies?” he said.
“We leave them. We change course and fly to the mining site.”
“What about the AI?” said Christian.
“It did not respond to our hails.” She glanced his way.
His fingers hovered over the controls. Was his hand shaking? “Though frozen, it could still be revived,” he said.
Leti paused, making the calculations in her head. “You’re right. It would also give us an answer about what happened to the Sino-Nissi. Of course, we will come back for its body, but first, we set up the mining infrastructure and we drill.”
Christian seemed to appreciate her will, her decision. Although he was programmed to counter her assumptions, he was also programmed to obey her orders. Deep down, he was just a robot.
For the next 15 hours, Christian and Leti maneuvered into the swirling atmosphere above Titan. They hovered about 400 meters above the mining site. They deployed the drill machines and watched them sink into the surface according to specs, after which, they set loose the mini-bots. As the hive created the mining environment, Leti monitored the data that streamed into their ship’s computer. Based on the early readings, Titan’s wealth was going to exceed the company’s expectations. She sent the data onto headquarters along with a copy to her accountant.
She was sure that after viewing the numbers, her boss at SAM would set in motion the launching of at least two harvest vessels. That communication was the second to last item on Leti’s mission checklist. Half of her bonus would go into her account at its receiving. The other half would be delivered when she returned with the Artemis and her crew. She would message her accountant about wiring money to Blake for Tommy’s soccer camp when she got confirmation of the deposit.
Leti raised her arms overhead and whooped. “We did it, Christian. We just made bank and we’re famous. You and I and even our buddy, Ty.” She patted the robot across his top. “We will be celebrated as the first. I can’t believe we did it.”
“Leti, you have ensured a valuable contribution to South American Mining and to the Americas. Congratulations, Leti.” Christian bowed.
She responded with a bow of her own. “I couldn’t have done it without you, Christian.” Her screen was still filling with amazing numbers. She ought to celebrate with a squirt of Scotch, but needed to plan for the next phase. “We have a few hours for you to recharge before data collection is complete, and then, we head home.”
“Except we’re going back to the Sino-Nissi wreckage, to collect the AI, right?”
“Yes…” she said and cursed her shaky voice. “We’ll check for the machine.” She avoided looking at Christian while attempting to modulate her heart rate in case he was paying close attention to her vitals. “That’s what I meant. In the meantime, you should plug in. We’ll need you in top form, so we can manage the rescue.”
She pretended to ignore Christian as he plugged into his recharge dock. After a few minutes of quiet, she unbuckled and glided over to where he sat, stiff as a corpse, his head bent and resting on his chest. She touched the back of his neck. It was as cold as the temps in her ship.
Yet, he was a work of art, resembling any number of Anglo pop stars that had populated Earth in the past 50 years. Even his skin was a glittering tan. She moved her fingers, feeling around his hairline above his left ear. She found the tiny latch and opened his main brain. She pulled out his red memory square and floated back to her station. She inserted the square into the viewing port and re-watched their search for the Sino-Nissi. She highlighted the portions of their conversation that included the AI, being careful to make her edits artfully. A sloppy job here might alert Christian as to her meddling. After a few goes, she was satisfied with the result. She ejected the square and held it tightly in her hand. As she floated back to Christian, she heard the buzzing of a camera eye. Ty was watching her, tracking her every movement. She had forgotten about Ty.
“I see you, Ty,” she said. There was a slight tremor to her voice despite her best efforts to calm herself. “You probably don’t understand what I’m doing right now.”
She was hoping to draw him out, to understand his programming, what he might relay to the bosses, or more importantly, what he might relay to Christian.
“I aim to please, Leti,” Ty said. “I know full well that mistakes are a part of being human.”
“You feel this a mistake?”
Ty did not answer.
“I mean…you THINK this is a mistake?” said Leti.
“In this case,” said Ty. “I do not think. I only report.”
“But YOU used the word mistake. I did not present that idea. Therefore, you do have a thought about what I am doing.” Leti was nearly certain that if her actions were reviewed by the mining company, her decision would be praised as practical and perfectly legal.
Ty spoke again. “Remember that you asked Christian to record everything with our ship’s cameras. The ship’s memory will not line up with Christian’s, nor will it line up with mine. What you have done will not remain a secret. Do you wish your decision to leave the AI body behind to be a secret?”
Leti turned and faced Ty’s convex lens, her own bloodshot eyes reflected in the dark glass. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I have been programmed to help you succeed,” said Ty.
“So, what should I do?” asked Leti.
“That is for you to decide,” said Ty, as patiently as a Holy Priest might say to his parishioner.
Former Army Sergeant, Moe Chen, sent a message drone to Santiago Debussy and Geraldine Falcon on a scorching Sunday in late May 2062 offering each a job in the government sanctioned goose trapping operation. They were promised Japanese Yen as well as fuel coupons for the travel. They were to report to Lake Merritt, in the City of Oakland on the first Tuesday in June. The vets returned the drone along with their digital thumb prints, accepting the contract. Jobs were scarce in the post-war economy, especially cash paying ones. Currently, they were trading labor for room and board on a cattle compound in Moraga. They had not been paid with paper money since being discharged from the military.
The night before the trip, they laid out their gear, including body armor, though Santiago knew Geri’s preference for riding without.
“Can’t we just wear our leathers?”
“No.” Santiago lit a second candle for their reading hour. “You never know who might be lurking in the junk.”
Geri picked up the tattered copy of Heart of Darkness she had borrowed from the ranch library. She decided not to argue. Her boyfriend’s tendency to err on the side of caution was one of the reasons she had survived the war. Her reckless spirit needed to be checked periodically…she just hated that it had to be that way.
At zero six hundred hours, in the predawn darkness, they rolled their motorcycles onto the road, wheels crunching over gravel. The night watch swung open the compound’s gates and waved them through. They straddled and started their bikes, flipped on their high beams and began the descent into the ruins of Lafayette.
They arrived on Mt. Diablo Boulevard just as the Eastern sky was beginning to glow. There was no breeze in the low-lying area, so Geri slowed her motorcycle and unbuckled her neck guard. She was straddling a Yamaha XT250, an enduro bike, a souped-up cavalry leftover. Santiago, with his towering frame needed a much larger ride. He traveled by Harley, an Iron 1200, from the early 21st century. Following the war, he had paid for it in gold after negotiating for weeks with a Japanese collector. Santiago loved that motorcycle. More than half his free time went to tinkering with the engine, searching the local junk yards for spare parts, polishing the chrome. As far as vehicles were concerned, there was little left in the United States of the Pacific to match the beauty of Santiago’s Harley.
Geri let out a howl and turned onto the ramp. Santiago followed. They rounded the newly repaired onramp until their bikes pointed West on Highway 24.
“Don’t get too far ahead,” said Santiago.
Geri gave him the thumbs up, stood on her pegs and began the ride West. The light had quickened behind them, so she turned off her headlight and set her eyes to the forward field, scanning from the left to right. She watched for motion, 50 to 100 yards ahead, a cavalry instinct she would likely never shake. Overall, she liked what she saw, an actual path through the junk and no movement in the wreckage. For the first time since the middle of the war, the way into Oakland might be characterized as clear. Burned out trucks and autos still cluttered the thoroughfare, but road crews had worked to move enough debris to make a narrow lane for travelers. A small success of the new government, hiring a competent enough crew to move shit and pave over some of the larger cracks and melted asphalt. By no means was the ride perfect, but it was a damn improvement over the last time Geri had traveled the highway.
After a healthy rainy season, beauty was remerging. The air was unusually fresh this morning, free from soot and smog. Set against natural grasses, lavender lupine, wild mustard and orange poppies blanketed the hillsides. She had seen traces of color around the ranch, though the cattle did a number of most of the foliage. Here, the wild flowers had multiplied undisturbed. She found herself feeling light-hearted, even joyful.
“…like Persephone emerging from Hades,” she mumbled.
“What?” said Santiago. “I couldn’t hear you. You want to slow down, so I can catch up?”
Geri down-shifted and slowed to 5 mph. She adjusted the microphone fitted inside her helmet. “I said, aside from all the scrap, it’s kind of pretty.”
“The flowers. Yeah, I noticed. Looks like the gov did some road clearing too. I wonder how the ranch will be impacted when the traffic starts flowing like the old days? Might need some more fire power to protect the cattle.”
When Santiago drew even with her, Geri sped up again. They continued for a few miles at her pace, making good progress toward the Caldecott grade when Geri noticed movement in the wreckage on the opposite side of the highway. She flipped up her visor and pointed. “Scavengers.”
Santiago lifted his binoculars. “Two males. Grade school age.”
Geri snorted. “Like they’ve ever seen the inside of a learning institution.” The boys stood atop a tipped-over 18-wheeler, circling their stick arms overhead.
“They must have heard the motorcycles. What do you think?” Geri slowed to a crawl. “Should we see if they need help. We could give them our lunches.”
“Hell no. We need those calories if we’re gonna work all day.” Santiago passed her on the left, waving her forward. “Plus, it could be a trap.”
She rode up on his flank and held him in her stare. “They’re war orphans.”
“They may be orphans, but we have no idea who or what lurks behind that rig.”
“Look how skinny they are. They have no energy to set a trap.”
“We do not stop. We leave them behind. We keep our appointment or we may not get paid.”
Geri watched the boys grow smaller in her bar end mirror. “Fuck.”
“We can consider stopping on the way back,” said Santiago.
For the next few miles they did not see another soul. This was the way of things in New California, a state with a population of fifty million, shaved down to four. And four million was a likely exaggeration, an attempt by the government to stem public despair.
As if reading her mind, Santiago mused, “You know, we might see crowds today. You gonna rescue all of them too?”
Geri flipped up her middle finger.
He laughed. “What’s that for?”
“For being anti-social.”
“I just want you prepared for the onslaught of need.”
“My armor is intact,” she said.
“Nope,” said Santiago. “Never has been and never will be.”
Geri kicked her bike into high gear and leaned forward.
She was fast approaching the detour in the highway where the tunnels had caved. She down-shifted and weaved between what looked like a few recently stranded vehicles. The route, unpaved but smooth enough for two wheels, followed Old Tunnel Road up and over the top of the Caldecott Grade. Geri revved her Yamaha and shot up the hill, her knobbies kicking back a spray of pebbles and dust.
Santiago took to the road more carefully and well behind to avoid the dirt-storm. He caught up with her at the summit. She had parked near a favorite overlook and climbed a boulder jutting out from the hillside. She sat, dangling her legs above the drop off.
Santiago took in the view from atop his Harley.
The Oakland Port teemed with tankers, waiting to be filled with California oil. Nearly all of it was being shipped to East Asia to pay off war debt. To the north, the Golden Gate bridge, half rebuilt and not yet painted, gleamed silver and beyond it, offshore rigs dotted the horizon. The new Bay Bridge lay in front of them, functional, but ugly. Maybe in another 50 years, the government would have enough money to rebuild the old beauty.
Santiago removed his helmet and pulled off one glove to scratch along his jawline. He had recently shaved his beard for Geri because she preferred him without. He was still not used to the feeling of whiskers growing back.
“The city is filled with people and some of them are hungry, like those orphans. How are you going to handle that?”
Geri scrambled off the ledge and returned to her bike. “I’m not going to handle anything? I don’t handle people, but I hate when kids suffer for what our fucking politicians decided ten years ago around a bottle of Kentucky Bourbon. And I will feed those boys on the way back,” she said, “You can’t stop me.”
They arrived at Lake Merritt at 8:20 AM. The lakefront was overflowing with war vets. A cloth banner, tied between two newly planted Oaks, bore the words: Operation Goose Trap.
Geri sputtered a few chuckles into the mic. “Got to hand it to the military—they know how to brand an event.”
“We are the military,” Santiago reminded her.
“Which is why I have the right to criticize their stupidity.” Geri pulled a rag out of her pocket and wiped the dust off her visor. “It’s okay to make fun of your own fucking family.”
“Speaking of family—the brothers are here.” Santiago kicked the Harley onto it’s stand.
Clement and Oscar Everett, two of their cav buddies, stood along the shore unfolding a giant net. When Santiago broke into a stiff jog, Geri knew she might not see him for a while. He called over his shoulder. “Gonna say hi. I’ll be back in a few.”
Despite the early hour, the lakefront buzzed with a festive vibe, maybe due to the promise of food, maybe because the sun was love bombing the city with warmth and light. Men and women in uniform were herding hundreds of civilians away from Lakeside Park toward the ruins of the Catholic cathedral, where a flea market of sorts had sprung up.
The cityscape was slightly improved. Crumbling high-rises and torched apartment buildings still dominated the landscape, but some degree of demolition and cleanup had taken place. Empty lots prepped for new construction was the most encouraging sign. It was slow-going, this post-war recovery, particularly with the population depleted and food so scarce.
Geri leaned her Yamaha against a tree and unclipped her armor. She eyed a number of vehicles, civilian and military, parked nearby. A circus-sized tent had been erected beyond the vehicles. Guards stood at each entrance to the tent indicating to Geri that it was somehow crucial to the operation and off limits to the public. She shaded her eyes and saw a woman waving a floppy hand. The woman stood in front of a brick-colored pickup, one of those large-cabbed versions. She shouted Geri’s name.
Geri lifted her arm high to acknowledge as she recognized her old friend, Soledad Chamorro.
During the war, Soledad, or Soli, as her friends called her, rode with the First Cavalry as head cook. She was fearless, hard-working and absolutely gorgeous. In fact, Soli had won a local beauty contest in Santa Cruz before the world went to hell, not that she would have made claim to the title now. Most of the beautiful women still alive in the United States of the Pacific were trying to downplay their looks. Life was dangerous enough without such allures. Earlier that month, on Santiago’s urging, Geri had cut her hair as short as a man’s. She wasn’t vain, but she hated the fact that freedoms had been taken from her, like the freedom to wear her hair as long as she damn well pleased.
“It will be cooler, easier to care for,” Santiago had said.
“You tired of picking nits,” she had replied, “my lazy ass boyfriend?”
The haircut in question had taken place about five weeks before. Geri yanked off her gloves, threw them into her helmet. She fluffed the matted thickness atop her scalp. A few brown ringlets were beginning to coil down her neck. They had almost become an annoyance.
Soli was filling pots at the water truck. A muscular man waited at her side.
Geri walked her way, calling as she approached. “Hermanita…” She took the final steps with her arms wide open.
Soli shut off the water and threw her one good arm around Geri.
“Geraldine!” She held on for a long while, then stood back. “Oh, my God. I love your hair. It suits your tough bitch image.”
“Just an image?” Geri raised an eyebrow.
Soli belted out a laugh while pulling Geri over to the man at the water valve.
“I’d like you to meet my husband, Donovan.”
Donovan stood at least 6′ 5″. His face was clean-shaven. He wore his blond hair long, tucked behind his ears. At closer inspection, Geri noticed his deformed left ear, a slice off the top. He also bore three scars across his left cheek, diagonal zebra stripes on an otherwise perfect face.
“Nice to meet you.” Geri held out her hand. “I served with your wife for three years in the cav. She’s a damn good rider and a more brilliant cook.”
Donovan smiled showing a number of silver capped teeth. He tapped them with his index finger.
“No tongue,” said Soli, “the bastards made him gargle the acid. He was a spy for our side.”
A string of curses spewed from Geri’s lips, something unintelligible. She grabbed Donovan by the arm and held on. She bowed over and stared at his enormous boots, though her focus wasn’t really on them. She felt her hair follicles tingle across her scalp as a wave of rage which had taken on a graphic quality in recent months. Scarlet and gray, a thick goopy substance, splattered across a blue-black canvas, an image so distinct, she could study it in her mind’s eye and in viewing the image, hear the accompanying soundtrack of an airplane, a barrel smashing into the ground, then the groaning of those who lay dying. And with the soundtrack, came the smells–blood, flesh and smoke. The terror and the horror of those acid drops stayed tucked into the soft folds of her brain tissue. Unlike so many others more badly damaged than she, who had moved on from trauma, Geri’s body refused to forget.
Donovan was patting her shoulder. He wanted to say something to her.
He moaned the phrase I’m okay. His eyes expressed a sense of calm. Then, he lifted the full pot of water and carried it effortlessly to a butane-powered line of burners already loaded with covered pots.
“Are you having a flashback?” Soli said. “You sort of went AWOL there for a few.”
For the millionth time, Geri pulled herself together for the sake of remaining socially viable within the human family. “I get really fucking pissed sometimes. I can’t believe we did this to each other. Can you?”
Soli sidled up to Geri and reached for her hand. She wove her fingers through Geri’s and raised the sun-speckled back to her lips. This kiss, a mark of deep friendship and camaraderie, helped Geri relax. Soli was that kind of person. Her parents, who had died late in the war, had named her well.
Soli pointed to Donovan with her elbow. “Look at him. As strong as a bull.”
“He’s got a great chin, though looks won’t automatically get you Santiago’s approval.”
Soli did not object to Geri’s steering of the conversation back to banter, nor did she object when Geri pulled her hand away. “You’ll both approve when you get to know him. He’s a good man. Plus, he can’t talk back at me.” And then, Soledad laughed, her sweet, choppy cackle of a laugh.
Geri allowed herself a smile feeling somewhat buoyed by Soli’s joy. “So how is your arm? Does it still ache?”
“Not as much as it used to. It’s inconvenient. It’s ugly, but the real bum is that my riding days are over.”
Geri gazed across the park. “How many do you think are here from our division?”
“Hard to say. Maybe 25.”
“That many…” The scene around them was pastoral and calming…It was odd to think they were about to go on a massive killing spree, even though the victims were only water fowl.
“Have you and Santi already been assigned?” Soli asked.
“We haven’t seen the Sarge yet,” Geri said.
Soli tipped her head toward the large military tent. “He’s in there. No longer Sarge. Promoted to First Lieutenant. He’s leading this show.”
“I figured,” said Geri. “Did he contact you too?”
“Yeah,” said Soli. “He looks good, by the way. His prosthesis is robotic, so he must be doing well for himself. His daughter is working with him today. I think she’s government.”
“You always know the scoop, Soli.”
“This is the moment I would rub my hands together and tell you the real gossip, but that’ll have to wait.”
“You don’t have two hands to rub together.”
Soli laughed again. “Aw…that’s low. Don’t expect to get away with that shit around Donovan. Anyway, you better get your name in, so they’ll know what to pay you. We’re on the clock.”
“You need anything while I’m over there?” asked Geri.
“Just you and Santi.”
Geri parted with her friend, promising to return as soon as possible and made her way toward the tent where most of the guards were stationed. She recognized dozens of vets along the way and smiled at them. Eventually, she saw Santiago.
He was lounging on the grass with a group of veterans. but was too busy talking to notice her approach. “We live in our own private trailer, a nice one. We eat protein every day. It’s safe and the boss is looking to expand…I’m sure some of you would be welcome if you wanted the work.”
“And…The place smells like shit and blood,” Geri added.
Santiago smacked her calf, across the back of her leathers. It was the only part of her he was able to reach. “Damn, woman. You’re ruining my pitch.”
Oscar jumped up from sitting to give her a hug. Clement followed, though more slowly, given that his right foot was a stump. The conversation kept on, a lot of chatting around where they had been living and working. At a lull in the conversation, Geri tapped Santiago, “We need to get our asses registered. The sooner we get on their list, the sooner we get paid.”
Moe Chen could not have been more happy to see them and introduced them to his daughter as, two members of my division who didn’t lose a limb. As per their request, both of them were assigned to Soledad.
As they walked out of the tent, Santiago hugged Geri to himself. When Soli saw them, her face lit up like a star and of course, Santi let his arm drop and sprinted into her hug.
Santi lifted Soledad and spun her around. Soledad laughed and laughed until Santi finally let go.
Soli put her good hand on her knee to catch her breath. Finally, she looked up at Geri. My freakazoid hand is getting in the way. Can you tuck the sleeve into my belt?
“Sure.” Geri moved closer to Soli’s lame arm and pulled her friend’s sleeve tight around it, threading the cuff through her silver-studded belt.
“Now that’s a lovely piece of leather,” said Geri, “that belt.”
“I got it off a dead fashionista—we were outside of Napa, defeated a thousand foot soldiers that day? Remember?”
Geri stared at the studs, trying to access the memory. “I don’t…” She shook her head. “Outside of Napa? Was it in Yountville?”
Geri had plundered her fair share, but to a large extent, she was able to put out of her mind which of her possessions had come from bodies. By the end of the war, the East was so broke and desperate for fighters, DC had forced its newly drafted soldiers to outfit themselves. Those pawns were all green, easy kills…In the last months, as the war was coming to an end, Geri and her comrades walked through battlefields in the same way her grandparents had meandered through shopping malls. Certain soldiers became experts at spotting treasures, Santiago and Soli among them because, unlike Geri, they felt no misgivings about taking wealth off the dead. “If we don’t, someone else will,” they would say to reassure her.
So here was case and point. Santiago had paid for his Harley in gold—gold pulled off and sometimes cut off the fingers of fallen soldiers. He had collected about 500 rings by the end of the conflict. The smith who melted them down hadn’t blinked an eye when Santiago brought his bag into the shop. Geri remembered the moment the Yen were stacked in Santiago’s hand. The amount had been astonishing.
As if reading her mind, Soli said, “I say a prayer for this lady every time I pull down my pants.”
“You’re a damn Santa Maria,” said Geri.
Soledad bowed, then asked for help re-tying her apron. “Some things are impossible to do with one hand.”
Geri positioned herself behind Soli and tied the strings. “So what are the pots for?”
“Plucking and brining,” said Soli. “Some of the birds will go to people alive and kicking, but for those who want to eat their bird on the sooner side, we’re offering a plucked, gutted and brined goose, wrapped in plastic, ready to transport.”
“So all these pots of water have something to do with the process?” said Geri.
“You’ve never plucked a bird before?” said Soli.
“I try to stay out of the kitchen,” said Geri.
“It can’t be too different from slaughtering and skinning cattle, can it?”
Geri shrugged. “How long will a brined bird last in the heat?”
“I don’t know…probably 24 hours…”
“I want one of these geese…or maybe half a goose,” said Geri, “for those orphans we came across.”
What orphans? There’s an orphanage over the hill? If so, I know of some kids who could use a place…”
“No orphanage. That’s not what I meant…” said Geri.
“She saw a couple of kids…” Santiago had been connecting the butane tanks to the camp burners nearby. He had been content to let them converse, but no surprise to Geri, he wanted to chime in now.
“They were crawling in the junk along the highway. We have no idea if they’re on their own or what. You know her, Soli. She would like to deliver a care package to every poor fuck in this godforsaken country.”
“Oh, Geri, Geri, Geri,” scolded Soli. “I love your heart, you know I do, but hungry people…they can be dangerous.”
“I’m aware.” Geri said. She picked up an armful of salt boxes and walked toward the burners. She carried them to the furthest pot and lingered there. She would not let them talk her out of her intention to feed those children.
A horn blew. The goose hunt was on. Everyone shifted their gaze to the lake.
Most of the pluckers were from their division, but the Cavalry Second was to take on the trapping. Santiago, Geri and all their buddies had to wait for the first set of birds to get caught, so they temporarily abandoned their posts to watch events on the lake. Teams went out into the water, four vets per boat while shore teams covered the lakefront, eight vets holding a net and waiting for the geese to flee the water. One individual threw out cracked corn, while the boats attempted to herd the geese to the shore. Initially, the gaggle resisted moving toward the nets. In the early attempts, most of the birds escaped, swimming or running, taking violent aim at any and all on the shore. The First Cavalry Division roared and catcalled as they watched their fellow war heroes running up and down the beach, the birds biting at their heels with flared wings, necks straining and hissing like demons.
“Whoa,” Geri said. “Why aren’t they flying away?”
“They’re molting,” Soli said. “They can’t fly in this season.”
Santiago bellowed. “Funniest show I’ve seen in years.”
After observing the chaos for half a minute, Soli ran to her truck. When she returned, she was carrying a digital cam. She swatted Donovan. “Get down so I can sit on your shoulders.”
Santiago held out a hand to steady Soli as she swung her leg around Donovan’s neck. Donovan raised himself slowly, un-phased by the extra weight.
Soli began recording. “This time round,” she said, “our descendants will be able to watch the taming of the Wild West.”
On the muddy shore, stage left, two female MPs moved in to help with the capture. They had wrapped jackets around their hands, had snuck up on a honking gander and begun wrestling the bird into submission. The gander did not go down quietly.
Santiago whistled out his teeth. “Not sure I want my descendants to see this.”
The geese never fully cooperated with the original plan, but the Second Cavalry was adapting their methods. Within 40 minutes, they had landed a few respectable catches.
Soli turned off her camera as Donovan lowered her to the ground. “Time to get going.” She motioned for the others to follow.
All their equipment was sterile, Soli had seen to it. She was now patrolling the various work areas making her last check. Santiago and Donovan were stationed at the pots of boiling water, waiting to dip the first birds that were bleeding out in the cones. Sixteen vets lined either side of a long wooden table. They would be receiving the birds from Santiago and Donovan. The first eight had been assigned to pluck the goose down for later sale.
Geri and two other vets stood at the gutting block. Their job was to receive the plucked geese and extricate the innards, chop parts off and seal the edibles into plastic bags. Bags of innards, minus the livers. The livers were being sold off to a Korean wholesaler at a premium. The bag of guts would go to the second level ticket holders.
After the geese were gutted, they were set into brining vats, then rolled into a refrigeration truck where they would remain overnight. It was a complex operation. There were more plucking and gutting stations than just Soli’s. Over 300 vets were working at their site and supposedly five other locations around the San Francisco Bay. An entire network of veterans were attempting the same operation. Poor fucking geese.
Geri hardly had time to think as she gutted and chopped all morning without break, and right when she was getting hungry, at about 14:00, Lt. Chen shut them down, his voice crackling over the PA. Enough geese have been caught. We are not to endanger the remainder of the population, a future food source for New California.
The trapping had come to an end, but Geri received carcasses for another hour. At around 15:00, she pulled off her apron and stepped out of her rubbers. Every carcass had been dealt with. All that remained was the blood-soaked ground and hundred empty cones.
Geri wandered over to Donovan and Santiago at the truck. Clearly, the two of them had hit it off. Santiago was asking yes/no questions. Donovan was nodding or shaking his head. Santiago had managed to figure out who Donovan had fought with and where he had done his spying.
Geri sat on a wooden block nearby and massaged her forearms. About a half hour later, Soli approached, her apron stained with blood.
“If it isn’t the queen plucker herself,” Santiago announced.
“Team effort,” said Soli, though she made a point of bowing to the one who had praised her.
“What about you,” she asked Geri, “Did you have fun?”
Geri lifted her shoulders.
“Damn, you’re hard to please,” said Soli.
“Tell me about it,” said Santiago.
Geri threw a pebble at Santiago and they all laughed.
Soli wrapped her hand around Geri’s sore fingers. “Hey,” she said, “I know we didn’t talk about this before, but Donovan and I are putting a shell over the truck bed and sleeping there tonight. There’s enough room for one person to stretch out on each of the bench seats in the cab. I was thinking of inviting you to stay with us…but…” said Soli. “I mean…I’m serious. You should stay here tonight.”
“What do you think?” Santiago looked Geri’s way.
Geri studied Soli’s face. “You sure?” She did not doubt her friend’s sincerity, but understood the challenges of hospitality in this environment.
“Positive,” Soli said.
“It’s probably too late to outride the dogs,” said Santiago. “For sure, we couldn’t stop to look for your orphans if we left now.”
“It would be a death sentence for those kids,” said Soli…”fresh meat would draw every hungry beast in the area.”
And Geri knew they were right. “Okay,” she said, “we’ll stay.”
“Anyway I’ll need baggers tomorrow,” added Soli, “and you’ll get a few more Yen.”
Donovan grunted and pointed to the truck.
“Oh yeah,” said Soli “There’s this. We have a really good bottle of sake for tonight.”
The four of them spent the early evening at the mess, eating goose stew and drinking fresh orange juice from the orchards of Bakersfield, as fine a delicacy as the army had to offer, but in the late afternoon they heard the first howl. The dogs were on the hunt and would be upon them by dusk.
Little by little, the vets exited the tent, leaving its flaps opened and tied up to the poles to allow the animals to roam in and out without damaging the canvas. Most soldiers knew the pattern. The dogs would find their way to the camp, fight over any food scraps that remained. A few soldiers would find a high perch somewhere. At some point, they would shoot a dog or two for sport. The carcass would of course be eaten immediately by a rival pack. Geri had no stomach for this diversion anytime, much less after slicing into geese all day. The whole wild dog thing had always disturbed her. She headed toward Soli’s truck.
“Why hasn’t the government gotten rid of them?” Geri asked Soli, who had just showered and was setting up the cab for sleeping.
“Are you asking why the government hasn’t organized, Operation Kill Puppies?” Soli said.
Once she finished with the setup, she pulled the bottle of sake out of a duffle marked: Pots and Pans. “You’re sensitive, Geri and I wish I could comfort you with stories of goodness, but truth is, I don’t know. I’ve heard that one of the agencies is re-taming the choice animals and the rest of the packs help the government enforce curfew. So…maybe we would be brutalizing one another much more if it weren’t for the dogs.”
“So, we’re using the dogs to keep us from slaughtering one another? That’s pitiful,” said Geri
“Desperate times…you know the saying…” said Soli.
The four of them sat in the cab, drinking sake while the shadows grew long. Soli told Donovan’s story, about his interactions with the National Army, in which he had been planted by the Alaskan secret service.
“A number of the National soldiers refused to kill secessionists. In the early days, a few National draftees were actually from the West, but DC didn’t trust them, so they were buddied up with Eastern recruits, many of whom were looking for a chance to betray a fellow soldier and get promoted.”
“Promotion in the Army ain’t all it’s cracked up to be,” said Geri, swirling her third shot and downing it.
Donovan grunted his assent.
A growl sounded outside the cab. The four of them went silent. Another growl and a rush of movement rocked the vehicle. Geri’s arm hairs pricked up.
In the dimming light, they watched two alpha dogs enter the slaughter area. Soon after, dogs came from every direction. One small pack was devouring remnants of the innards near Geri’s station. Another couple of opportunists had jumped onto the chopping block and were licking feverishly. Within seconds, more dogs entered the area, some unattached to packs, a few, too sickly to do more than cower at the periphery. On this evening, most of them would get a little something to eat. They all seemed to know that.
“Why don’t they kill the live geese?” Santiago asked Soli.
“They do,” she said, “but for the most part, when the birds are not molting, they fly away. When they cannot fly, they swim to the center of the lake. Look there.” Soli pointed toward Lake Merritt. It was difficult to see anything in the near darkness, but Geri could make out a number of geese bobbing in the water.
“I watched a dog take down a fat one last night,” said Soli, “but damn, that old bird put up a fight. I think the dog regretted the kill.”
A growling match between two alphas had broken out near the mess. The growling became snarling as they circled one another. A thick-breasted Wolfhound lunged at a dark-haired German Shepherd. The Shepherd moved left and snapped at the hound’s front leg. He bit quickly, then retreated to the safety of his pack. Geri noticed a lanky female behind him. The bitch stood ready to defend, matted long hair and markings that reminded her of a Bernese Mountain Dog, similar to one she had owned as a girl.
The Wolfhound curled around the Shepherd, trying to bite him in the flank, but the Shepherd spun left and bit again, this time taking out his rival’s other front leg. The hound hobbled and yelped, but lunged one last time and took a hold of the scruff of the Shepherd. The Shepherd let go of the leg and shook him off. The hound, fell sideways, stood shakily, then backed away. Geri heard the vets cheering, urging the animals on. She pulled two cotton balls out of her jacket pocket and plugged her ears. She closed her eyes and sank into her sleeping bag. She hated this violence between creatures. She hated what humans and animals had done to survive this war. She hated the fact that violence would fill her dreams tonight and always.
Santiago cried out twice in his sleep and when asleep herself, Geri dreamt of her Bernese Mountain Dog, fighting ocean waves and eventually drowning in the deep waters at Stinson Beach. On top of that, the sake hadn’t agreed with her.
She woke way too early feeling as though someone had rammed a spike through her temple. She needed coffee, which meant heading to the mess tent. She stumbled out of the truck and just as her feet hit the ground, she threw up. As she inhaled, the scent of dead animals and putrid lake water overwhelmed her. She heaved another few times, then shuffled to the latrine. Finding a stray tube of Crest in the john, she squirted a line of paste into her mouth, rinsed and spat. She splashed water on her face and felt a little better.
At the mess, she poured herself a coffee. Other vets appeared to be just as desperate for their morning cup, but damn the coffee was terrible, like dirt or that blasted yerba shit the army always mixed into the grounds. She poured another cup and carried it toward Soli’s truck. Santiago was emerging from the cab, stretching his arms overhead. His face was pale, but he appeared rested.
“Good morning, darlin’,” she said, handing him the cup and lifting her face to him.
He bent down and kissed her.
“The coffee sucks,” she added.
“Umm…and you brushed your teeth.”
“Sort of,” she said.
Santiago drank a long swig and swallowed hard. “That’s some terrible coffee.”
Geri laughed. “You ready for the next phase?”
He nodded. “Then we get the hell outta here.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
They were manning the industrial-sized shrink-wrapper.
Step one required muscle. Someone had to carry a brined goose from the refrigeration truck to the shrink-wrapper. Santiago took this job, since the geese weighed about 20 pounds and were slippery as hell. Geri turned the crank that folded the plastic over the bird, then melted and sealed the edges.
Geri figured that Santiago had lifted about 50 birds before he started complaining that his hands were going numb.
As they wrapped the final few, the crowds began to disperse. Citizens who had received nothing were brought into the mess to eat the leftover stew. Some of them were handed bags of innards. Most of the vets had departed that morning and those remaining were beginning to pack up. Geri and Santiago cornered Soli who was busy cleaning equipment. She stopped and nodded toward a sheet that had been thrown across one of the mess tables.
“I thought you’d get a kick out of this,” she said to Geri.
It was the Army banner, Operation Goose Trap, only someone had crossed out the T and written a C in its place.
Santiago elbowed Geri. “You’re not the only one who thought the branding lacked creativity.”
“To think someone had enough foresight to bring black paint,” said Geri, “Genius.”
Geri drew a map of how to reach the cattle compound. It would be a while before a 4-wheeled vehicle could get from Oakland to Moraga, but eventually, the roads might clear for a truck.
“Remember. When you approach the iron gates, yell “Live free. Destroy DC,” Geri said.
Soli smiled. “Catchy.”
Soli and Donovan gave them long hugs as they said their final goodbyes.“Message us when the highway is ready. Until then, we’ll be bunking with the Coast Guard in Alameda.”
After suiting up, Santiago tied the shrink-wrapped and brined bird to the Harley. They left Oakland at approximately 13:00. By 13:30, they were heading down Old Tunnel Road. Geri rode ahead at cruising speed. She eventually slowed to 40 mph when they reached the portion of the highway where they had seen the orphans. Santiago was a half mile behind her.
The flowers on the hillside did not capture her attention this direction. She was watching for people, taking note of hazards along the way. This was a terrible place for children, a playground from hell…at which point her mind wandered, but for only a second, not that it would have made a difference. She felt a tug and then a sting at her chest. Something yanked her backwards off her bike. She hit the ground hard as the Yamaha went careening into an automobile carcass.
Pain was shooting up her right side. She got to her knees and tried to stand, but a scrawny boy appeared out of nowhere and rammed her.
“What the…” She stumbled, landed on her arm and cried out in pain.
There were two boys. The larger of them was kicking her in the gut. The younger was kicking her from behind. Thankfully, her armor protected her against the worst of their blows. She remained on the ground, guarding her injured arm as best she could.
The next thing she knew, she heard Santiago blaring his horn and screaming threats. Thank God for the Harley. It did make a hell of a lot of noise.
The boys backed off.
“Geraldine,” Santiago yelled. “I’m here.”
She must have been crying because her visor was fogged. She flipped it up and rolled to her good side. She made eye contact with the older boy and whispered. “Don’t piss him off any more than you already have. He’ll kill you.”
The boys ran and crouched behind a burnt out sedan about ten yards away.
Santiago was at her side now, still on his bike, but with one boot on the ground for balance. “That’s a bad thing you did,” he shouted at the boys, “Downright evil.” He leaned over and picked up the snapped wire the boys had rigged.
He looked down. “What kind of injuries?” he asked her.
“Maybe a broken collar bone, arm, possibly ribs…” Geri managed to get to her feet.
The younger boy was holding his knees and rocking back and forth. He was in bad shape. The skin of his face was cracked and blotchy from scabies and he was whimpering like a cornered animal.
“Do not scare them, Santi,” Geri said
The older boy smacked the younger one. “Shut up, you piece of shit,” he screamed.
“Wait,” Geri said to them. She raised her left arm. “I have food, something for you to cook and eat.”
Santiago uncocked his gun. “They could have killed you.”
“They’re starving,” she said to Santiago.
Santiago put the Harley on its stand and got off. The movement caused the older boy to retreat further, but the younger one stayed put, cowering.
Geri kept moving until she reached Santiago.
He caught her with his free hand, but kept his weapon on the boys.
Geri flinched. “Don’t shoot them. They’re children. Don’t…”
Santiago kept his firearm raised. “They’re worse than vermin…”
Geri shuffled to Santiago’s Harley and began untying the goose, a longer ordeal with only one useful hand. “I’ll ride on the back of your Harley,” she said.
“You’ll ride in the front,” Santiago said, “between my arms.”
“Fine,” she said. She pushed the bird to the ground and rolled it toward the boys. The plastic must have gotten punctured because the bird’s juices were leaking onto the soil. “We go now,” she said to Santiago. She stumbled back to the bike and swung her leg over the Harley. Pain flared across her back. She tried to breathe evenly.
Slowly, Santiago holstered his weapon. He saddled up behind Geri and started the engine. He revved the Harley’s very loud engine and drove about 100 feet, then stopped so they could turn and view the orphans.
“We should probably walk for a while and check for other wires,” he said.
“Not sure I can walk. I might be going into shock,” said Geri.
Santiago removed his jacket and carefully wrapped it around her as they witnessed the boys, ripping the plastic, then tearing at the flesh. They were eating the bird raw.
Santiago moaned, exhaling dark, low sounds. It was his habit when expressing anguish whether awake or asleep. This spectacle, the spectacle of the boys eating the raw goose…it would stay with both of them for many weeks, but it would turn out, despite her physical injuries, Santiago would suffer more than she. Sometimes, that was the way of things in war. Not all memories were easily forgotten. No drug, no booze, no fantasy could make the vision disappear.
“The meat won’t help them,” she said finally, “they’re so far gone.”
“The protein will sustain them for a time,” said Santiago.
“That’s not what I meant,” said Geri.
“Ok then,” he said. “We’ll go nice and we’ll go slow until we’re off the highway. We’ll get you home as fast as we can.”
Geri nodded, leaned back into him and closed her eyes.