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.